Unprecedented X-ray Telescope Set to Chart the Cosmos and React to Unforeseen Occurrences

The article discusses the rise in missions aimed at studying the Universe and its components, with a particular focus on telescopes. The James Webb telescope, launched in late 2021, is currently the most significant in this field and has already revolutionized astronomy. However, the upcoming Athena telescope, part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) plan, promises to bring even more groundbreaking advancements.

Athena, short for Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics, is designed to study the “hot and energetic Universe.” Its main goal is to deepen our understanding of how ordinary matter forms structures like galaxies and the processes that allow black holes to grow and influence their surroundings. It will be the largest X-ray telescope ever created, with capabilities expected to be ten times greater than any existing telescope. This will enhance its light-collecting area, survey speed, sensitivity, and spectroscopy.

The telescope will consist of three main instruments: the X-ray telescope, the X-ray Integral Field Unit (X-IFU) for high-spectral resolution imaging, and the Wide Field Imager (WFI) for moderate resolution spectroscopy over a large field of view. Athena’s two primary missions are to map the hot gas in the Universe to understand its physical properties and evolution, and to uncover supermassive black holes from the Universe’s early days.

A unique feature of Athena is its ability to respond to unexpected celestial events almost immediately, which is not common in most astronomical hardware. It will respond to half of all unexpected celestial events within four hours of their occurrence, and track brief sources like gravitational waves and neutrino events.

The Athena telescope will also work in conjunction with the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), set to launch in 2035. LISA’s purpose is to enhance our understanding of gravitational waves caused by massive space objects moving through space.

ESA plans to launch Athena in 2035 and keep it running for at least four years, with possible extensions. The telescope will be placed at a point of gravitational equilibrium in space, similar to the James Webb, to orbit the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1 (L1). From this vantage point, Athena will observe about 300 strong sources of X-rays per year, each for approximately 28 hours, mapping the hot gas in the Universe and revealing more about hundreds of black holes.

ESA is not building the telescope alone; the American and Japanese space agencies, NASA and JAXA, are also involved. This collaboration underlines the global importance of such advanced technology in the continued exploration and understanding of our Universe.

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