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XMM-Newton revolutionises the way we view the universe

Coma Cluster of galaxies. Image courtesy of U. Briel, MPE Garching, Germany and ESA.

XMM-Newton revolutionises the way we view the universe

Mission’s decade of success peering into the final frontier

Issued on 08 December 2009

XMM-Newton, the most powerful X-ray observatory ever built and launched into space, marks its 10th anniversary on December 10th. XMM-Newton’s observations have revolutionised the way we view the hottest and most extreme regions of the Universe.

Scientists from the UK who have played a pivotal role in the success of the orbiting observatory, which is the size of a small bus, will be marking the occasion at a special event in Madrid organised by the European Space Agency (ESA).

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

Ten achievements of XMM-Newton:

• made crucial observations that have impacted on every aspect of astronomy

• traced the largest structures in space: the galaxy clusters

• probed the regions closest to stellar-sized black holes in our Galaxy, and the super-massive black holes at the heart of external galaxies

• showed how super-massive black holes grow over time and drive the evolution of the most massive galaxies in the universe

• tracked the production and dispersal of the chemical elements by exploding stars

• measured powerful magnetic activity in young stars like our Sun

• discovered that Mars has a vastly larger atmosphere than previously thought

• played a key role in the study of the elusive “dark matter”, believed to account for the missing mass of the Universe

• observed X-rays emitted from around the Earth and around other planets such as Saturn and Jupiter

• made the largest catalogues of cosmic X-ray emitters ever – over a quarter of a million entries in the latest release - providing vast samples of newly discovered objects

The European Space Agency’s mission has three gold-coated mirror modules which focus X-rays onto advanced instruments on board.

The development and construction of two of the three science instruments was led by UK groups, including teams at the University of Leicester and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London; the latter also contributed to the third instrument on board. Other UK institutions that have been involved include the University of Birmingham and the University of Cambridge.

The international instrument teams play a vital role in maintaining the instruments in orbit and ensuring they continue to deliver good science.

The UK is also home to the Leicester-led XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre (SSC), an international consortium which plays a complementary role in the XMM-Newton project, carrying out the science data processing for every observation and using the XMM-Newton observations to compile the largest catalogues of cosmic X-ray sources ever made.

Professor Mike Watson, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and XMM-Newton’s Survey Scientist said: “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.”

“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.

“Next year the University of Leicester celebrates the 50th anniversary of its involvement in space science. The success of XMM-Newton is a testament to the far-reaching implications of this research.”


XMM image gallery

XMM Press Release archive


Dr. Steve Sembay, E:, T: +44 (0)116 252 3507

Professor Mike Watson, E:, T: +44 (0)116 252 3553

Professor Bob Warwick, E:, T: +44 (0)116 252 3517

(Dr Sembay and Prof Watson will be in Spain on Dec 10/11th)

Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

Professor Mark Cropper,, T: +44 (0)1483 204 155

Dr Mat Page,, T: +44 (0)1483 204 283

Professor Graziella Branduardi-Raymont,, T: +44 (0)1483 204 133

(Dr Page and Prof. Branduardi-Raymont will be in Spain on Dec 10/11th)

Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Department of Space and Climate Physics, University College, London, Holmbury St Mary, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6NT

Background information:

About XMM:

The X-ray Multi-Mirror mission XMM-Newton, named after the great British physicist Sir Isaac Newton, is a space-based X-ray satellite observatory. XMM-Newton is ESA's second cornerstone of the Horizon 2000 Science Programme and was launched by an Ariane 504 rocket on December 10th 1999 from Kourou in French Guiana. The space telescope is 10 m long, which is equivalent in size to a small bus. It carries three X-ray telescopes each made up of 58 thin, closely packed, gold plated mirrors. The large collecting area and ability to make long uninterrupted exposures provide highly sensitive observations. The instrument payload consists of 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.

X-rays are a form of light that is emitted at extremely high energies and are naturally produced in extreme environments (e.g extremely high gravitational fields, high speed collisions, ultra-strong magnetic fields) that are impossible to replicate in laboratories on Earth. Despite their well known penetrating power, X-rays are readily absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, so in order to study cosmic X-ray sources we need to launch our telescopes into space. As the necessary rocket technology was only developed in the middle of the last century, X-ray astronomy is still a very young field. Despite its youth, the discipline has advanced in leaps and bounds and is now one of the fastest growing fields in astronomy. XMM-Newton has provided enormous advances in our knowledge of the extreme universe, provided new insights into the birth and death of massive stars, the environment close to super-massive black holes in the centres of galaxies, the nature of the super-heated gas that fills the space between clusters of galaxies, and the aftermath of supernova explosions.

UK involvement:

Two of the three instruments in the payload, the EPIC and OM, were developed and constructed by UK-led teams: the EPIC X-ray cameras by the University of Leicester and the OM optical/UV telescope by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London (MSSL/UCL). MSSL/UCL also contributed to the third instrument on board XMM-Newton, the Reflection Grating Spectrometer (RGS). These international teams continue to support the in-orbit operations of the instruments.

Four out of the five focal plane cameras benefited from strong links with the UK semiconductor industry. The Chelmsford company e2v provided the specialised X-ray sensitive CCDs used in these cameras. These devices have helped the UK and Leicester to gain a worldwide reputation for X-ray instrumentation. UK industry also provided the advanced detectors used in the focal plane of the OM telescope and contributed to the construction of the OM telescope mirror.

The UK also leads the XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre (SSC), a key project team that developed much of the software used by the astronomical community to turn XMM-Newton data into useful scientific results, carries out the science data processing for every observation and uses the XMM-Newton observations to compile the largest catalogues of cosmic X-ray sources ever made. The University of Leicester leads the international SSC consortium which also includes, in the UK, MSSL/UCL and the University of Cambridge.

The three Principal Investigators (PIs) involved in XMM-Newton and based in the UK are Steve Sembay (the EPIC PI), Keith Mason (the OM PI), and Mike Watson (the SSC PI).

UK participation in the XMM-Newton project is supported by grants from the Science And Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

University of Leicester involvement:

Leicester is home to both the EPIC instrument and the SSC teams, including the Principal Investigators of both consortia (Steve Sembay and Mike Watson). Two of the cameras that comprise the EPIC instrument were designed and built at Leicester’s Space Research Centre by a team led by the late Martin Turner, one of the world’s leading experts in X-ray instrumentation.

Mullard Space Science Laboratory (University College London) involvement:

MSSL/UCL led the design and development of the OM optical/UV telescope, including the optics, filter wheel, detector and electronics. MSSL/UCL is also Co-Investigator institute for the RGS spectrometer, providing the control and processing electronics and the on board software for the instrument.


• XMM-Newton is operated by the European Space Agency (ESA)

• Launched 10 December 1999

• Elliptical orbit 7,000km-114,000 km from Earth

• Weighs (on Earth) 3800 kg

• Is 10 m long and 16 m in span

• More than 2,200 scientific papers have been published based on XMM-Newton’s data

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