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INFO 19-1999: Lifting the veil on the X-ray universe

INFO 19-1999: Lifting the veil on the X-ray universe

23 November 1999

X-ray astronomy is a relatively young branch of astrophysics which today is one of the most competitive and popular. In the few decades since the discovery of X-ray radiation from cosmic X-ray sources, this field has grown at an astonishing rate leading to the identification of numerous exciting new phenomena.

ESA's X-ray Multi Mirror mission - XMM - is the second Cornerstone in ESA's Long Term Scientific Programme (*). This new X-ray space telescope promises even more discoveries. With the large collecting area of its mirrors and the high sensitivity of its cameras, XMM is expected to increase radically our understanding of high-energy sources - clues to a mysterious past, and keys to understanding the future of the Universe.

174 wafer-thin X-ray mirrors

X-rays coming from celestial objects are highly energetic and elusive. They can best be measured and studied after focusing a sufficient number upon sensitive detectors. To achieve this, XMM's Mirror Modules have been given a gargantuan appetite for X-rays.

The space observatory combines three barrel-shaped telescope modules. In each are nested 58 wafer-thin concentric mirror shells highly polished and subtly shaped. Passing through at an extremely shallow angle, the so-called "grazing incidence", the X-rays will be beamed to the science instruments situated on the focal plane at the other extremity of the satellite.

The three mirror modules have a total mirror surface of over 120 m2 - practically the size of a tennis court. The collecting power of XMM's three telescopes is the greatest ever seen on an X-ray space mission, many times more than the most recently launched X-ray satellite.

The design and assembly of the mirror modules, their testing for operation in space and their precise calibration constitute one of the greatest achievements of the XMM programme. The flimsy mirror shells, with their gold reflective surface on a nickel backing, were made by replication like carbon copies from master moulds. They were shaped to an accuracy of a thousandth of a millimetre, and then polished to a smoothness a thousand times better than that.

Packaged one within another like Russian dolls, each mirror was focused and centred with respect to its neighbour to an accuracy of 25 microns - a quarter of the width of a human hair.

A multi-spectral space telescope

The spacecraft carries three sets of science instruments, not only capable of making images of an X-ray source but also able to precisely distinguish the "colour" of the X-rays being viewed.

At the prime focus of each of the telescopes are three European Photon Imaging Cameras. With silicon chips that can register extremely weak X-ray radiation, these advanced cameras are capable of detecting rapid variations in the intensity of a source.

Grating structures at the exit of two mirror modules will reflect about half the incoming rays to a secondary focus, with its own cameras. This Reflection Grating Spectrometer will 'fan out' the various wavelengths (much like a prism with visible light), and indicate in more detail the presence of individual elements, such as oxygen and iron.

The third instrument aboard XMM is a conventional but very sensitive optical telescope. It will observe simultaneously the same regions as the X-ray telescopes but in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths, giving astronomers complementary data about the X-ray sources being studied. In orbit, this 30-cm telescope will be as sensitive as a 4-m instrument on the Earth's surface.

The mysteries of the X-ray sky

XMM will explore the hidden depths of the Universe, its violent hotspots where stars and galaxies are formed, and where worlds and matter itself disappear. Much as the colour of a street lamp can indicate which gas it uses, the science instruments on board XMM will reveal the deepest secrets of X-ray objects, their chemical composition and temperatures - clues to the physical processes that are taking place.

Astronomers will use XMM to resolve the mysteries of stars that exploded long ago as supernovae and whose remnants, glowing with X-rays, may be supplying material for new planets and stars. They will study regions of supernova remnants that are still hot and may hold the key to understanding the origin of the enigmatic cosmic rays that pervade the Universe.

The mission will study X-rays that originate from 'vampire stars' that feed upon their companions, where intense gravitational fields swirl matter from one sphere to the other in strange and terrifying ballets.

XMM's high-speed cameras will examine celestial sources whose X-rays pulse rhythmically and mysteriously, and those that flash briefly, pinpointing perhaps gigantic explosions that result from colliding black holes in far off galaxies.

XMM will delve into enigmatic black holes, cosmic dustbins that consign matter and light to oblivion, where tired X-rays have lost energy and time itself is slowing down.

The golden X-ray eyes of ESA's observatory will try to make sense of a bigger picture, ascertaining how galaxies aggregate millions of stars, how these galaxies themselves form clusters and groups scattered across cosmic space. XMM will also attempt to understand the nature of the invisible dark matter that fills interstellar space.

A high-flying mission

The XMM spacecraft, the largest science satellite ever built in Europe, is due to be launched in December 1999 by an Ariane-5 from the European Spaceport in Kourou.

After being released by the launcher, XMM will be placed in a highly eccentric 48-hour orbit, rising to a distance of 114 000 km from the Earth, then returning to within 7000 km of our planet.

This orbit has been chosen for several reasons. It offers an optimal contact between ground tracking stations and the satellite; it will allow the satellite to pass rapidly through the Earth's radiation belts which could harm its delicate science instruments; and above all it will offer astronomers the longest possible observation periods.

Note to editors:

No X-rays from space can penetrate the Earth's atmosphere so all X-ray astronomy is carried out with instruments on rockets, stratospheric balloons or satellites. X-rays from the Sun were first detected during sounding rocket flights in the 1950s. By 1970, more than forty X-rays sources had been detected during rocket-borne experiments.

Satellites have since conducted more extensive surveys. The first satellite dedicated to X-ray astronomy was Uhuru. Launched in 1970 it mapped the sky identifying 339 sources. Several others were to follow, including Einstein which carried grazing incidence mirrors and detectors capable of recording images of cosmic X-ray sources. Einstein studied more than ten thousand sources.

EXOSAT (1983-1986) was the European Space Agency's first X-ray observatory mission. Placed on a highly eccentric orbit reaching out 191 700 km from Earth, it allowed very long observations above the radiation belts and greatly enlarged our understanding of many classes of X-ray sources.

The German/US/UK ROSAT launched in 1990 was another big step forwards. Until its recent switch off it carried out a complete sky survey identifying 100 000 X-ray sources.

XMM will be opening up a golden age of X-ray astronomy alongside two other major missions. Launched in July 1999, Chandra is the third of NASA's Great Observatories. It is exploring X-rays from space with images 25 times sharper than previously obtained. ASTRO-E is Japan's fifth X-ray astronomy mission and is due to be launched early in 2000.

Europe has already begun studying a next generation X-ray astrophysics facility, XEUS. By making use of the International Space Station and by ensuring significant potential for growth and evolution, XEUS will offer vastly expanded capabilities allowing the study of the very first black holes created when the Universe was just a few percent of its present age.

For more information please contact:

Mr Robert Laine
XMM Project Manager
Tel : +31 71 565 5621

Dr Fred Jansen
XMM Project Scientist
Tel : +31 71 565 4426

ESA Public Relations Division
Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)

Last Update: 1 September 2019
11-Jul-2020 07:32 UT

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