X-ray vision for the night sky

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FAU is supporting the development of a planned international space observatory by providing unique software

The so-called X-ray integral field unit (X-IFU) on board ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics), a European Space Agency (ESA) space observatory, will one day be able to look deep into the hot universe using x-rays. The project has now overcome an important hurdle as the feasibility of the instrument has been confirmed by ESA and the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES). FAU is part of the research consortium made up of institutions from eleven European countries as well as the USA and Japan, and is supporting the project by providing special software for mathematical models. The telescope is due to start its research in space in the 2030s.

Mathematical models from FAU

Astrophysicist Prof. Dr Jörn Wilms and his team at FAU’s Remeis Observatory and the Erlangen Centre for Astroparticle Physics (ECAP) are making an important contribution to the ATHENA space observatory. The team has developed software that enables the entire planned detection process to be reproduced in devices and that allows the team to simulate which data is recorded by instruments such as X-IFU. ‘The software allows us to build mathematical models that are so sophisticated that the simulated data is identical to the measurement data from the devices’, explains Prof. Wilms. ‘This enables us to optimise the performance of the devices.’ This unique simulation software means that the FAU researchers are very much in demand. It can be adapted to suit all missions and produces specific performance studies. However, the researchers from FAU are not working alone on adapting the software for the ATHENA mission. Individual modules are being supplied by partners in the consortium. FAU astronomers have a coordinating role and are supporting the researchers from the other research institutions to implement the software in various studies.

Clusters of galaxies and black holes

The scientific payload carried by the ATHENA space telescope will consist of the X-IFU together with the Wide Field Imager (WFI) coordinated by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE). Using the x-ray telescope, both instruments will observe an energy range of light that is only accessible from space, namely the hot and energetic universe, that is, the world of clusters of galaxies, black holes or exploding stars. These objects hold the key to understanding how the universe was created and how it has evolved over time. X-IFU will enable researchers to gain important information about the formation and development of large material structures observed in the universe. In addition, it will allow them to gather data about how black holes are formed and how they interact with the galaxies in which they are located.  The WFI, in which FAU is also involved, will capture images of structures over a wide field and measure the radiation near black holes.  The ATHENA space telescope will be launched in the early 2030s.

The X-IFU Consortium comprises engineers and researchers from 50 laboratories in eleven ESA member states as well as from Japan and the USA. The work being carried out by Prof. Wilms’ working group has received 621,000 euros of funding from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to date, and a further 684,000 euros has been approved until 2021.

For more information about the project, visit:



Further information:

Professor Jörn Wilms
Tel.: +49 951 9522213