Press Release

Athena Observatory helps to solve mysteries of the universe

By SpaceRef Editor
July 7, 2014
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The European Space Agency (ESA) has selected the Athena X-ray Observatory as its second ‘Large-class’ science mission in the 21st Century, which will help to answer vital questions about the universe. 

Combining a large X-ray telescope with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, Athena will study the hot and energetic universe to address key questions in astrophysics, such as how and why ordinary matter assemble into the galaxies and galactic clusters that we see today and how black holes grow and influence their surroundings. 

Professors Watson, Willingale, O’Brien, Tanvir and Osborne along with other members of the X-ray and Observational Astronomy Group (XROA) in the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy contributed to the formulation of the science case and the scientific specification for Athena and are members of the world-wide consortium which developed and proposed it.

Professor Dick Willingale from the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy said: “We are all thrilled with ESA’s decision and look forward to participating in building this great telescope and eventually helping to analyse the extraordinary data it promises to provide. Athena will give the University of Leicester a pivotal role in the future of high energy astrophysics research in the next two decades.”

Professor Willingale and co-workers will help ESA to design, build and test the X-ray mirror for the observatory. X-ray detector specialists working at the University’s Space Research Centre are members of the European consortium which will build the imaging detectors for the focal plane of the telescope.

Athena will be the largest X-ray telescope ever built, combining a 3m diameter X-ray mirror with state of the art scientific instruments. 

It will observe the X-ray emission from material swallowed by black holes just before it disappears, providing vital information about the extreme gravitational environment around the black hole and the spin of the block hole itself. This will allow for a greater understanding of how black holes grow and the vital role they play in the formation and evolution of the universe.

Ken Pounds, Emeritus Professor of Space Physics at Leicester, said: “The launch of a small satellite, Ariel 5, 40 years ago allowed UK astronomers our first detailed observations of X-rays from outer space, carrying the unique signatures of black holes and other exotic objects across the Galaxy and beyond. UK university researchers have remained at the forefront of X-ray Astronomy from those early days, contributing in both cutting-edge technology and science exploitation.
“The European Space Agency’s selection of the Athena X-ray Observatory now ensures continuing access for the international community to one of the most exciting areas of astrophysics, with capabilities matching those of NASA’s James Webb Telescope and major ground-based facilities. “
The Athena Observatory will be launched in 2028 to study the hot and energetic Universe as part of ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-25 plan.
Activities of the X-ray and Observational Astronomy group in the Department of Physics and Astronomy can be found at: 

An artist’s impression of the observatory can be found at: 

Further details about Athena science and instrumentation will be published in the Friday 4 July 2014 issue of the magazine Science and can be viewed on You-Tube: 

SpaceRef staff editor.