The Athena X-ray Observatory

The Advanced Telescope for High-Energy Astrophysics (Athena) was selected in 2014 as the next large X-ray observatory in the ESA space program. It has been conceived to address some of Astrophysics' most pressing questions, which can be addressed with X-ray observations by combining unprecedented collecting area, survey capabilities and energy resolution. Athena’s answers are poised to transform our understanding of the Hot and Energetic Universe.

Athena’s scientific goals grow from two fundamental questions:

How did ordinary matter assemble into the large-scale structures we see today?

How do black holes grow and influence the Universe?

Due to its novel Silicon Pore Optics mirror technology combined with two very powerful scientific instruments, the Athena mission will offer significantly enhanced capabilities in terms of telescope effective area, angular resolution, and instrument fields-of-view. Compared to current facilities, it will deliver a ~50-fold increase in throughput for high-resolution X-ray spectroscopy and a factor of ~50 improvement in terms of deep survey speed over XMM and Chandra.

The X-ray satellite will reveal the hot gas which dominates the baryonic (visible) matter content of the Universe today, contained in galaxy clusters, galaxy groups, and intergalactic filaments. It will also show how these structures formed and evolved, tracking the thermodynamic, chemical and dynamical evolution of these structures through cosmic time. Athena will explore when and how elements were created and dispersed into the intergalactic medium. Peering through dust and obscuring clouds of gas, Athena will discover and map supermassive black holes throughout cosmic time back to when the Universe was still assembling galaxies. These images and spectra will uncover the history and evolution of ordinary, visible matter, as well as their interplay during the formation of the largest structures. Athena's observations of neutron stars will show how matter reforms under crushing pressures well beyond any laboratory, while studies of spinning black holes will reveal how these objects form and grow. In addition to these core goals, as an observatory with exceptional capabilities compared to current facilities, Athena will also open up a huge discovery space sure to yield new phenomena we cannot currently envisage.

MPE is the leading institute for the Athena Wide-Field Imager (WFI), leading the development of the instrument. The heart of the WFI is formed by a set of DEPFET active pixel sensors that are being developed together with the MPI Halbleiterlabor (HLL). This novel detector technology allows a large focal plane (40’ x 40’) with nearly Fano-limited energy resolution and fast readouts, resulting in high-time resolution and count rate capability.

The role of MPE in the WFI also includes providing the necessary pre-and post-launch software and participation in the data centre activities. MPE is furthermore contributing to the development of X-ray optics via the provision of the PANTER X-ray beamline and calibration facility.

WFI started its System Requirements Review (SRR) in March 2022, successfully completing the requirements review in May 2022. This was the first step in the overall Athena Mission Adoption Review (MAR) process, anticipated initially to culminate in summer 2023, with the mission going forward into implementation.
Due to overall concerns regarding the financial health of the ESA science program and the cost growth in Athena specifically, the process was interrupted in June 2022. Specifically, Athena was not adopted in June 2023 as expected. Instead, a “design-to-cost” activity commenced to reduce the costs to ESA to approx. €1.3bn, which is currently ongoing.

Further information is available here

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