Europe’s main X-ray space telescope could be downsized

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is considering ways to redesign a large X-ray space telescope after a number of ESA member states pulled out of the project.

Athena, or Advanced Telescope for High-Energy Astrophysics, was selected by ESA in 2014 and is intended to be launched towards point 2 of the Sun-Earth Lagrangian, a point located approximately 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth from the night side of the planet. There he would study supermassive black holes, the formation of clusters of galaxies, supernovae and other cosmic phenomena by observing X-ray emissions.

However, ESA is currently studying the possibilities of reducing the design of the observatory in the face of increasing costs, SpaceNews reported (opens in a new tab)citing comments from ESA Astronomy and Astrophysics Coordinator Paul McNamara during a July 21 presentation to NASA’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Committee.

Related: A new map of the universe reveals a stunning X-ray view of the cosmos

Athena had an estimated cost of around €1.17 billion, adjusted to today’s prices, when first selected. However, by May this year, estimates had risen to 1.9 billion euros, according to the report.

The mission is progressing well technologically, including the development of a new lightweight mirror. However, ESA’s costs have increased due to the withdrawal of a number of partners. “Several of the member states concluded that they were unable to meet their commitments,” McNamara said, asking that ESA take responsibility, according to the report.

ESA is keen to ensure that the cost increase does not impact other missions and is now looking to “reframe” Athena to reduce its price. McNamara said the agency was not looking to cancel the project.

The revised design, known as NewAthena, will likely change the configuration of the project’s science instruments and the science objectives of the mission. The mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2028, but changes to the mission could have implications for its schedule.

The changes could also impact NASA, which is involved in science payloads, providing testing and calibration equipment and facilities. McNamara suggested that the ESA would be open to more intensive involvement from the space agency as a “reframing” option.

“No door is closed,” he said. “We are looking at every way to try to get the best mission possible within the programmatic constraints.”

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