X-ray mission to study most energetic phenomena in the universe

21 Aug 2023

XRISM spacecraft in thermal vacuum test room. Image: JAXA

ESA astronomers will get 8pc of the available observing time on XRISM, a US-Japan mission that European astronomers have contributed hardware and advice to.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed that the latest x-ray mission it is a part of is ready to launch on 26 August to study some of the most energetic objects in the universe.

The X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, or XRISM, is the result of a collaboration between NASA and Japan’s national space agency, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), with “significant participation” from the ESA.

X-rays are released during some of the most violent and energetic events in space, including the super-hot gas that envelops galaxy clusters – the building blocks of the universe.

XRISM has been designed to detect x-ray light from this gas to help astronomers measure the total mass of these systems, revealing data about the formation and evolution of the universe.

“X-ray astronomy enables us to study the most energetic phenomena in the universe,” explains Matteo Guainazzi, an ESA project scientist for XRISM.

“It holds the key to answering important questions in modern astrophysics: how the largest structures in the universe evolve, how the matter we are ultimately composed of was distributed through the cosmos and how galaxies are shaped by massive black holes at their centres.”

Guainazzi said XRISM will be a “valuable bridge” between the ESA’s other x-ray missions, such as XMM-Newton, which has been in space for 24 years, and Athena, due to launch in the late 2030s.

The ESA said XRISM’s observations of galaxy clusters will also provide insight into how the universe produced and distributed the chemical elements, because the hot gas within clusters is a remnant of the birth and death of stars over the history of the universe.

By studying x-rays emitted by this gas, XRISM will aim to discover which ‘metals’ – elements heavier than hydrogen and helium – it contains and map how the universe became enriched with them.

In return for providing hardware and scientific advice, the ESA will be allocated 8pc of XRISM’s available observing time. This will enable European scientists to propose celestial sources to observe in x-ray light and hopefully make breakthroughs in astronomy.

“ESA and the European community have a history of involvement in JAXA’s high-energy space telescopes,” explains Matteo. “Continuing this partnership through XRISM comes with enormous benefits to both space agencies.”

XRISM is scheduled to launch on a H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on 26 August. It will be livestreamed on JAXA’s YouTube channel.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic