Czech scientists are participating in development of a unique device for space research

02. 05. 2019

Czech astronomy and space physics have recently reached a very important milestone. The Czech Republic has managed to become a part of an international consortium of the most complex scientific instrument that has been ever designed for scientific research of space.

The device in question is a highly sensitive detector called the X-ray Integral Field Unit (X-IFU), planned for the satellite Athena of the European Space Agency (ESA). This instrument has just passed ESA’s key assessment regarding its capability to fulfil Athena’s ambitious scientific objectives. The mission will study the hot and energetic universe. This is the world of black holes, galaxy clusters, and exploding stars.

Black holes

Athena’s goal is to understand how large mass structures observable in the universe have been created and how black holes at the centres of galaxies have been formed. Aside from the main scientific objectives, Athena will serve as an instrument for research of a whole range of astronomical objects in the X-ray area. It will also contribute to a better understanding of phenomena in atmospheres and magnetospheres of planets in our Solar System. Athena will be an X-ray laboratory with a tremendous potential for important discoveries and one of the pillars of astronomical research after 2030.

The mission’s main device X-IFU is revolutionary thanks to a new technology of so-called X-ray microcalorimetry. The core of the device will be a set of sensitive thermal sensors cooled down to 50 mK, i.e. to 0.2 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. The cooled-down detectors will be able to detect arrival of each X-ray photon and precisely measure its energy. Thanks to this, the X-IFU will be 50 times more sensitive than current detectors.

Czech contribution

Czech scientists and engineers will design and subsequently develop an important part of electronics for the device – a so-called Remote Terminal Unit which will check temperature in the device and control mechanical and electronic components necessary for its proper functioning. The Czech contribution is a joint project of the Astronomical Institute and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the CAS, supported by the Strategy AV21 programme Space for the Mankind of the CAS and by the programme called PRODEX which is run by the Ministry of Education. Thanks to this contribution, the Czech Republic has become the 13th country in a consortium led by France, allowing Czech scientists to participate both in scientific preparations of the mission and in processing of the first data that the device will record after its scheduled start in 2031.

Original Czech text prepared by: Pavel Suchan, Astronomical Institute of the CAS, in cooperation with Alice Horáčková, Department of Media Communication of the CAS
Photo: Astronomical Institute of the CAS