Airbus Defence and Space

Exploring the universe Press releases

Airbus Defence and Space-built XMM-Newton telescope with sensational results on exploding stars, black holes and galaxy clusters


  • Ten years of X-ray astronomy with a "black beauty" in space
  • Satellite mission guaranteed up to at least 2012
  • 300 scientific papers using XMM results published annually



Friedrichshafen, 3 December 2009 - One of the most successful European space missions is celebrating its birthday: the Airbus Defence and Space-built XMM-Newton X-ray observatory will reach its 10 years mark in space. On 10 December 1999, an Ariane 5 rocket launched the research satellite into space. The XMM-Newton super-telescope, almost eleven metres high and weighing just under four tonnes, is the largest research satellite ever built on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). It now ranks among the most successful space observatories ever and is one of Airbus Defence and Space´s masterpieces in scientific missions.


Airbus Defence and Space was the prime contractor for the XMM-Newton satellite, which cost around €230 million, and has led an industry consortium comprised 45 European and one US company.


It has long since completed its contractually agreed service over a minimum of two years, and has now also reached its scheduled deployment period of ten years. Yet due to the overwhelming scientific success and the telescope’s excellent condition, the ESA has initially extended the mission up to 2012; from a technical viewpoint the observatory can be operated up to 2018.


But XMM-Newton is not just an outstanding achievement in scientific terms: bearing in mind that it took just 38 months to complete, management of the satellite project and its technological prowess must also be considered exemplary.


XMM-Newton, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Black Beauty’ by the engineers who built it on account of its black thermal protective film, consists of three mirror systems mounted parallel to each other, enabling X-ray radiation to be concentrated in three focal planes. As a result, celestial bodies can be observed simultaneously with a camera and two spectrometers. These spectrometers break down the X-ray radiation just as glass prisms split up sunlight into its rainbow colours. From the X-ray "colours" the astronomers can ascertain important physical variables such as temperature, density, relative motion or the chemical composition of matter.


Just like light, X-ray radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation, but hundreds if not several thousand times more powerful. It is emitted by bodies or gases with temperatures somewhere between a million and 100 million degrees. In effect, astronomers are using XMM-Newton to observe the hot part of the Universe. The X-ray data obtained from XMM-Newton are used to revisit classic astronomy and cosmology questions, to record matter in extreme states and to investigate the Universe in space-time structures.


Using XMM-Newton data, a team of astronomers managed to come up for the first time with proof that the mysterious black holes not only swallow energy and matter, but can also emit energy. Some of the observations using the X-ray telescope throw up new questions. XMM-Newton enabled scientists to discover a quasar whose radiation from the early stages of the Universe present a puzzling picture: might the universe actually be older than 15 billion years? Widespread theories dictate that a quasar from the early stages of the Universe should only contain minimal amounts of iron. Spectral analysis, however, showed that this quasar contains three times as much iron as our own solar system, which is at least four times older. This unusually large amount of iron fuelled a dispute among scientists: either we are dealing with a hitherto unknown type of iron production, or the Universe was, at the time the quasar emitted its light, much older than previously assumed.

The scientific superstar XMM-Newton provides a unique way of visualising the X-ray radiation that cannot be received on Earth – and which is invisible to the human eye. Just a few figures are testimony to the hitherto outstanding scientific achievement. In February 2009, the 2,000th scientific paper using data from XMM-Newton was published. Every year some 300 new papers are added. Between 1,500 and 2,000 scientists are working with XMM data worldwide, i.e. approximately every one in five professional astronomers.

The interest in observations using the European space telescope is as strong as ever. Every year, requests are received for around seven times more observation time than is actually available. This overbooking rate puts XMM-Newton on a par with the Hubble space telescope.


Will IXO follow in XMM-Newton’s footsteps?

Although XMM-Newton can continue operating until at least 2018 from a technical viewpoint, plans are already being discussed for a successor. Space organisations from Europe (ESA), the USA (NASA) and Japan (JAXA) are currently involved in the International X-ray Observatory (IXO). Representing industry, Airbus Defence and Space is also involved in preliminary testing. This work is currently focusing on a telescope with a mirror measuring 3.30 metres in diameter and a focal length of 20 to 25 metres (XMM-Newton = 7.50 m). The system could be ready for launch in 2020.


About Airbus Defence and Space

Airbus Defence and Space, a wholly owned subsidiary of AIRBUS Group, is dedicated to providing civil and defence space systems and services. In 2008, Airbus Defence and Space had a turnover of €4.3 billion and 15,000 employees in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. Its three main areas of activity are Airbus Defence and Space Transportation for launchers and orbital infrastructure, Airbus Defence and Space for spacecraft and ground segment and Airbus Defence and Space for the development and delivery of satellite services.


AIRBUS Group is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2008, AIRBUS Group generated revenues of €43.3 billion and employed a workforce of more than 118, 000.


Press contacts:

Dan Mosely (Airbus Defence and Space GB)                                                         Tel. : +44 (0)1 438 77 8180

Matthieu Duvelleroy (Airbus Defence and Space FR)                                              Tel.: +33 (0) 1 77 75 80 32

Mathias Pikelj (Airbus Defence and Space GER)                                                   Tel.: +49 (0) 7545 8 9123

Francisco Lechón (Airbus Defence and Space SP)                                                 Tel.: +34 91 586 37 41


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