The X-IFU’s Timeline
The beginning of the Athena Mission
When the Athena observatory is finally launched after the mid-30s, it will have been over 35 years in the making. The first idea for a new X-ray astronomy mission had taken seed in the minds of astrophysicists back in 1996, as a follow-up to XMM-Newton which had not yet been launched.
In May 2013, a proposal was submitted to ESA to address the “Hot and Energetic Universe” scientific theme with a large mission of its Cosmic Vision Programme. Then, a few months later, in November, this theme was selected by ESA to be the focus of its second large mission, while observing the Universe with gravitational waves was selected as the theme of its third large mission.
Finally, in 2014, ESA deemed the Athena observatory suitable to address the scientific objectives of the hot and energetic Universe theme and selected it as the second large mission of its Cosmic Vision Programme. The mission then successfully passed its Mission Formulation Review in 2019 and entered Phase B with its two instruments. In 2022, the mission underwent a reformulation phase and on November 8, 2023, ESA’s Science Programme Committee formally and unanimously approved the restart of industrial studies for the Athena mission. This new phase aims to ensure the consolidation of the design for the adoption of the mission.
A short history of high-energy astrophysics
The high-energy astrophysics field is a relatively new field of research beginning in the 1960s. Observations had to wait for rockets to launch X-ray observatories into space, because radiations in this energy range are blocked by the earth’s atmosphere.
This field focuses on the observation of X-rays and gamma-rays coming from astronomical objects. It is a field of extreme phenomenon, such as magnetic fields, black holes, neutron stars, explosion, accretion and ejection of matter. The first satellite designed specifically for X-ray astronomy was named Uhuru and launched in 1970. Of the most notable X-ray missions currently in operation, ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra are among the most scientifically productive missions. Both missions have greatly contributed to increase our knowledge about the Universe, and Athena will take it even further.