Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

ESA's XMM observatory takes first pictures
Posted: Feb. 3, 2000

Scientists examine XMM data. Photo: ESA
The European Space Agency's X-ray space observatory has taken its very first pictures giving new views on the Universe. The commissioning images confirm that the XMM spacecraft, its X-ray telescopes and science instruments are functioning perfectly, to the great satisfaction of all involved.

Under the aegis of Prof. Roger Bonnet, ESA Director of Science, the mission's Principal Investigators will be presenting these spectacular first images at a press conference to be held on February 9 at the ESA Vilspa facility at Villafranca/Madrid in Spain, where the XMM Science Operations Centre is located. The event will also be the occasion for several major announcements concerning the XMM mission.

In particular Professor Bonnet will launch the third XMM competition 'Stargazing' - previously announced in September 1999. This will address European youngsters, 16 to 18 years old, who will be offered the unique opportunity of winning observing time using the X-ray telescope.

Commissioning phase starts
After a successful launch from Kourou on Ariane 504 on December 10, 1999, XMM was brought to its final operational orbit in the following week. The telescope doors on the X-ray Mirror Modules and on the Optical Monitor telescope were opened on December 17/18. The Radiation Monitor was activated on December 19 and the spacecraft was put into a quiet mode over the Christmas and New Year period.

The mission's scientific data is being received, processed and dispatched to astronomers by the XMM Science Operations Centre in Villafranca. Operations with the spacecraft restarted there on 4 January when, as part of the commissioning phase, all the science payloads were switched on one after the other for initial verifications. By the week of January 17 functional tests had begun on the Optical Monitor, the EPIC pn, the two EPIC MOS and the two RGS instruments. The internal doors of the EPIC cameras were opened whilst keeping the camera filter wheels closed.

XMM in space
Artist's concept of XMM in space. Photo: ESA
Astounding first images
After a series of engineering exposures, all three EPIC cameras were used in turn, between January 19-24, to take several views of two different extragalactic regions of the Universe. These views, featuring a variety of extended and X-ray point sources, were chosen to demonstrate the full functioning of the observatory. The Optical Monitor also simultaneously viewed the same regions. One RGS spectrometer obtained its first spectra on January 25; the other will be commissioned at the start of February.

This initial series of short and long duration exposures have delighted the Project management team and the scientists even more. First analyses confirm that the spacecraft is extremely stable, the XMM telescopes are focusing perfectly, and the EPIC cameras, Optical Monitor and RGS spectrometers are working exactly as expected. The Science Operations Centre infrastructure, processing and archiving the science data telemetry from the spacecraft, is also performing well.

Initial inspection of the first commissioning images immediately showed some unique X-ray views of several celestial objects, to be presented on February 9. The occasion will give Principal Investigators and Project management the opportunity to comment on the pictures and the excellent start of the XMM mission.

The Calibration and Performance Verification phase for XMM's science instruments is to begin on March 3, with routine science operations starting in June.

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