The potential of the X-IFU for studies of the solar system

Home > Science > Posts > The potential of the X-IFU for studies of the solar system


It was just over 40 years ago when Jupiter’s X-ray aurora was discovered with the Einstein Observatory. Since then, we have come an exceptionally long way in exploring the solar system in X-rays, with XMM-Newton and Chandra playing a major role over the last 20 years. Since 2016 and the arrival of JUNO at Jupiter, in situ measurements have added a new dimension to remote observations. They have revealed the direct links between the production of auroral high energy emissions, their spectral and timing characteristics, with the behaviour of particles, waves, and magnetic fields in the planet’s magnetosphere. The Io Plasma Torus and Jupiter’s moons have been detected in X-rays. Rather puzzling, Saturn has not returned such a wealth of discoveries, and its X-ray aurorae remain elusive, with only scattered solar X-rays being observed from its disk and its rings. Mars and comets have proven to be spectacular sources of solar wind charge exchange (SWCX) X-rays, and to be ideal targets for high resolution X-ray spectroscopy. Chandra has observed the Earth’s aurora to be bright and very variable in X-rays; while the terrestrial magnetosheath has been shown to be a source of SWCX soft X-rays, a nuisance variable background for observations of cosmic X-ray sources whose lines of sight cross that region, but also a testing ground for studying the impact of the solar wind on geospace, going to be probed by future missions (e.g. SMILE). Most recently, Chandra has provided evidence for the detection of X-rays from Uranus, likely to be of auroral origin.

Discovery space in the X-ray exploration of the solar system will extend to new frontiers with the advent of Athena, which will deliver the effective area and non-dispersive spectral resolution capable of enabling a new scientific revolution in this field. The X-IFU will map spatially (Fig. 1, left) and spectrally, with exquisite energy resolution and an order of magnitude larger effective area than XMM-Newton RGS, the auroral regions and atmosphere of Jupiter, providing clues to the origin(s) of the ions producing soft X-rays via charge exchange (Fig. 2). The X-IFU will chart the atmosphere and exosphere of Mars through differing solar wind conditions and seasons, and the extended comae and bow shock of comets, using them as probes of solar wind conditions. It will characterise the chemical composition of moon surfaces and the puzzling X-ray spectrum of the Io Plasma Torus; detect or set more stringent limits on the auroral X-ray flux of Saturn, and provide indications of the origin of its rings X-ray emission; be able to ascertain the true origin of Uranus X-rays, i.e. auroral emissions and/or scattered solar X-rays.

The synergy of in situ measurements by missions travelling to the planets in the Athena timeframe (e.g. JUICE at Jupiter) with remote sensing observations of exceptional sensitivity and spectral resolution such as those by the X-IFU will provide crucial insights into the magnetic field conditions, particle populations and acceleration mechanisms leading to the X-ray emissions. Athena, and especially the X-IFU, will be a truly transformative observing facility for solar system science.

Fig. 1 – A SIXTE simulation (courtesy C. Kirsch, FAU) of Athena X-IFU (left) and WFI (right) views of Jupiter. The ATHENA spatial resolution is sufficient to separate the aurorae, and the non-dispersive nature of the X-IFU will provide a high resolution spectrum for each pixel in the image.
Fig. 2 – Simulated 20 ks X-IFU spectrum of Jupiter including charge exchange emission from the aurorae and coronal type emission from the planet’s disk.

By Graziella Branduardi-Raymont
X-IFU Science Advisory Team member

Related articles

Investigating the building blocks of the Universe in X-rays

Image credit: © ESO The astronomer Carl Sagan once said: “We are made of stardust”. This is, to a large […]

Read more

Detecting X-rays at IRAP

The test platform developed by IRAP and CNES in Toulouse is a key element of the demonstration of the detection […]

Read more

Investigating outflowing gas around Supermassive black holes

All the galaxies in the Universe host a supermassive black hole of unknown origin at their center and the mass of the black hole…

Read more

Witnessing the assembly of clusters of galaxies with the X-IFU

Clusters of galaxies are the largest bound astrophysical objects in the Universe. Located at the nodes of the cosmic web, […]

Read more

Studying X-ray eclipses in active galactic nuclei with X-IFU

Active galactic nuclei (AGN) are bright compact regions located at the centres of some galaxies. These objects are powered by […]

Read more

Stay in the loop!

Get the Athena X-IFU newsletter