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XMM celebrates decade
of discovery

Posted: December 9, 2009

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The most powerful X-ray telescope ever built and launched into space, ESA's XMM-Newton celebrates ten years of revolutionary observations this week.

ESA's XMM-Newton space observatory. Image: ESA (Image by C. Carreau).

“After 10 years of operation and over 600 million kilometres on the clock, XMM-Newton is continuing to perform outstandingly well,” says Steve Sembay of the University of Leicester, and Principal Investigator of one of the instruments on board.

Starburst galaxy M82, as seen by XMM, shows bright knots in the plane of the galaxy, indicating a region of intense star formation, and emerging plumes of supergalactic winds glowing in X-rays. Image: ESA.

At ten metres in length the payload comprises two X-ray instruments – the European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the Reflection Grating Spectrometer (RGS), which are fed by the three parallel telescopes – and one optical/UV telescope, the Optical Monitor (OM), which is the first optical telescope flown on an X-ray observatory. The development and construction of EPIC and OM was led by UK teams.

X-ray image of Mars. Image: Dr Pedro Rodr’guez Pascual, XMM-Newton SOC.

Over the last ten years XMM has been used to study a plethora of high energy objects in what is known as the 'extreme' Universe, including the birth and death of massive stars, the hostile environment of supermassive black holes, and the nature of super-heated gas that prevails between clusters of galaxies. Other achievements have included studying the powerful magnetic activity in young stars like our Sun, tracking the dispersal of chemical elements in supernova explosions, and contributing to studies of dark matter. Closer to home it also discovered that Mars has a vastly larger atmosphere than previously thought and has observed X-rays emitted from around the Earth and around other planets such as Saturn and Jupiter. The space telescope has one of the largest catalogues of cosmic X-ray emitters ever, including many new discoveries.

“XMM-Newton has allowed astronomers to peer deeper than ever before into the cosmos at X-ray wavelengths, giving us new insights into some of the most extreme regions of the Universe,” says Mike Watson, XMM-Newton’s Survey Scientist. “It is still one of the foremost space observatories in operation, and one of the most successful space missions, yielding over 2000 scientific publications to date. The instruments are still in very good condition and the discoveries and cutting-edge science continue to accumulate.”

ESA XMM-Newton Project Scientist Norbert Schartel adds: “Technologically, there’s nothing to stop us continuing for another decade.”