Press Release

XMM-Newton observatory: a year of monster astronomy

By SpaceRef Editor
December 15, 2000
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The XMM-Newton space observatory took off from Kourou, French Guiana one year ago this week. XMM is a space telescope that looks at the very hottest regions and most violent events in space. In its first year XMM Newton has discovered hundreds of new X-ray sources and is well on its way to solving some of the mysteries of space. Professor Roger Bonnet, ESA Director of Science said ëIn less than a year of routine observations, X-ray astronomy as seen with the eyes of XMM-Newton is truly a ëmonster astronomyí in the sense that we are dealing with huge concentrations of energy and mass.í

British scientists have been at the heart of the project and are at the forefront of the international team already producing exciting scientific results. The entire New Year issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics (vol. 365) will be dedicated to XMM-Newton and its findings.

A unique feature of the XMM-Newton X-ray mission has been its ability to determine the physical conditions in the X-ray sources themselves – using the Reflection Grating Spectrometer (RGS). The XMM-Newton RGS has explored supernova remnants. These are the remains of massive stars that have exploded. The material in these remnants goes on to become the solar systems and planets of the future. XMM-Newton’s RGS has been able to distinguish the mass of the star and what the stars were made of by identifying the strength and distribution of the different chemical elements within the remnants.

The cores of active galaxies and the supermassive black holes within them have been another focus for XMM-Newton’s attention. The galaxies are MCG-6-30-15 and Mrk 766. Co-investigator Dr Graziella Branduardi-Raymont, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London explains, ‘The RGS on XMM-Newton has radically changed our vision of the regions closest to black holes in active galaxies. For the first time we can distinguish clouds of hot gas, at temperatures of a million degrees or more, which sit above a disk of material swirling incredibly fast – at tens of thousands of kilometres a second. This disc of material is feeding the black hole.’

XMM-Newton is also starting to give us clues about the size, mass and rate of rotation of the black holes at the galaxies’ cores.

An ongoing mystery of astronomy has been where the background X-ray emissions in space come from. XMM has already discovered that up to 90% of this diffuse X-ray glow originates from the hundreds of distinct point-sources that XMM has detected.

XMM-Newton is still far from drawing definitive conclusions, but this is hoped to be a 10-year mission and there is a huge amount of data waiting to be analysed. Prof. Ian Halliday, CEO of PPARC, the UK’s strategic science investment agency said ‘In only one year XMM is giving us a new understanding of the structure and composition of our Universe. British scientists dreamed up this European project, played a major role in its design and construction and are continuing to lead the way in X-ray astronomy.’

Notes for Editors

Images

A selection of images is available at http://sci.esa.int/xmm/

Contacts

PPARC press office

Charlotte Allen
Tel: 01793 442012
Email: [email protected]

Peter Barratt
Tel: 01793 442025
Email: [email protected]

Mullard Space Science Centre, University College London         
Professor Keith Mason Tel: 01483 204157
Email [email protected]

Dr Graziella Branduardi-Raymont
Tel: 01483 204133
Email [email protected]

Leicester University
Dr Martin Turner Tel: 0116 252 3514
Email [email protected]

Dr Mike Watson Tel: 0116 252 3553
Email [email protected]

Birmingham University
Dr Mike Cruise Tel: 0121 414 4565
Email [email protected]                        

Notes for Editors

XMM-Newton was launched on December 10th 1999 from the European Space Port at Kourou in French Guiana. Standing 10 metres tall, XMM is the largest-ever European science spacecraft. It is the most powerful telescope in the world and can see more and further than any previous X-ray satellite.

To catch X-rays XMM carries three sets of 58 concentric mirrors, nested inside one another like Russian dolls. These gently guide the X-rays to a focus 7.5 metres away at the other end of the spacecraft. The device that records the X-rays, called the European Photon Imaging Camera, was built in the UK by Leicester University.

XMM-Newton also carries a more conventional telescope. This Optical Monitor was built in the UK by Mullard Space Science Laboratory and will enable scientists simultaneously to see in light as well as in x-rays – it can see not only X-rays from around the black hole but also the star that it might be orbiting.

XMM-Newton will also allow scientists to analyse the composition of objects in space, using complex, specially designed instruments (the reflection grating spectrometers). This extra information will provide a unique view of what there is in space. XMM will map the effects of the “dark matter” that dominates the Universe by studying its mysterious gravitational effects.

XMM-Newton will orbit the Earth for between two and ten years. The data is processed at Leicester University, where a new data centre has been built especially for European scientists to take advantage of the XMM mission.

The UK’s strategic science investment agency, PPARC, has contributed £76M to XMM, mostly over the project’s 6 year construction period (it was started in 1994). Taking into account both the cost to ESA and the cost to individual European countries, XMM is budgeted at about £500M to the end of its life. The UK share has been £21M directly to British universities for construction of advanced instrumentation and £55M through ESA, much of which has passed to UK industry to make the spacecraft and its sub-systems

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK’s strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four areas of science – particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), and the European Space Agency. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory.

PPARC~s Public Understanding of Science and Technology Awards Scheme funds both small local projects and national initiatives aimed at improving public understanding of its areas of science.

SpaceRef staff editor.