The Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences (IA) won the ESA competition to lead one of the mission consortia that will make a radiography of the Universe. With a launch date scheduled for 2031, the Advanced Telescope for High-Energy Astrophysics, or Athena, will allow scientists to understand how black holes determined the formation of the first galaxies, as well as the evolution of the structures that represent the skeleton of the Universe.
Over the course of two years, the IA will lead the development of an accurate optical system for the future space observatory. According to Manuel Abreu, a researcher at the IA and the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon (Cincias ULisboa), cited in a statement, the instrument allows you to check the direction of the telescope's mirror.
The objective is to ensure that there are no lateral displacements with an error greater than the hundredth part of a millimeter between the sensor of each instrument and the focal point of the mirror. The researcher explains that the mirror is 12 meters away, thus requiring great rigor.
When Athena arrives in Space, there is an entire initial calibration process that needs to be carried out. The entire system suffered thermal stresses and vibrations inside the rocket, and there is a high probability of not being aligned, Manuel Abreu explains. The AI's mission is to do the alignment remotely, verifying that the telescope and its instruments are pointing to the right place.
In addition to the IA, which is in charge of the design and development of the measurement system, the design of the optical component and the execution of the tests, the consortium has the participation of three companies. Two of the organizations, FHP and Evoleo, are Portuguese and will deal with the mechanical component of the system and the electronic subsystems. The Italian Thales Alenia Space will assist in the development of requirements, integration with the rest of the telescope and the definition of verification tests.
According to Manuel Abreu, the development process is now in phase B. The objectives to be fulfilled at this point are to ensure that the model has the final dimensions, with all the electrical, mechanical and thermal interfaces defined and to verify how it relates to the rest of the telescope, as well as that will withstand physical conditions.
IA has participated in the Athena mission since its inception, contributing to the scientific requirements of the Wide Field Imager (WFI) instrument and participating in the consortium at the level of coordination and the Scientific Team.
The WFI can help detect sources of emission more quickly than today's X-ray telescopes. There are several physical processes that emit X-rays, explains Israel Matute, a researcher at IA and Cincias ULisboa. The supermassive black holes at the center of certain galaxies that are actively attracting matter emit X-rays, and we know that they probably shaped the evolution of their own galaxy. They are very energetic processes, and therefore strongly influence the environment around you.
We are guaranteeing, in a long-term vision, that our research will continue to bear fruit through this unique observatory, stresses Jos Afonso, researcher at IA and Cincias ULisboa, leader of Portuguese participation in Athena and member of the WFI instrument board.