The observatory will study the hot and energetic universe and take the “L2” slot in ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015–25 plan with a launch foreseen in 2028.
By combining a large X-ray telescope with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, Athena will address key questions in astrophysics, including how and why ordinary matter assembles into the galaxies and galactic clusters that we see today as well as how black holes grow and influence their surroundings.
Scientists believe that black holes lurk at the center of almost all galaxies and that they play a fundamental role in their formation and evolution.
To investigate this connection, Athena will observe X-ray emission from very hot material just before it is swallowed by a black hole, measuring distortions due to gravitational light-bending and time-delay effects in this extreme environment. Athena also will be able to determine the spin of the black hole itself.
Athena’s powerful instruments also will allow unprecedented studies of a wide range of astronomical phenomena. These include distant gamma-ray bursts, the hot gas found in the space around clusters of galaxies, the magnetic interplay between exoplanets and their parent stars, Jupiter’s aurorae, and comets in our solar system.