LOFT selected as one of four candidates for a ESA's M3 mission.

link to BBC media coverage

link to ESA's announcement

UCL-MSSL space scientists are involved in two out of four missions that have been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to compete for a launch opportunity at the start of the 2020s, LOFT (the Large Observatory For X-ray Timing) and EChO (the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory).

LOFT is the result of an international collaboration lead by the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The PIs are Dr Marco Feroci and Prof. Luigi Stella and the team includes, together with MSSL, several other institutes across the UK, Europe, Israel, Turkey, Canada, and the US.


An artist impression of LOFT. The six petals around the main telescope axis, each consisting of 7 independent detectors, make up the Large Area Detector (LAD) array. The Wide Field Monitor (WFM) is on top of the telescope axis at the centre of the LAD array. (Image Credit: LOFT team, IASF/INAF Rome, Thales Alenia Space Italia, ESA-NASA)

LOFT will study at X-ray energies the  fast-moving environments that surround both accreting black holes and neutron  stars  - objects that can produce sudden and very rapid bursts of X-rays - and isolated pulsars. The UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory has a strong involvement in the science team (Dr Silvia Zane, Dr Roberto Mignani led  this effort), as well as in the engineering team of the mission (Dr. Dave Walton). 

LOFT will carry two instruments, the Large Area Detector (LAD) and the Wide Field Monitor (WFM), to be operated in parallel and search for fast X-ray variability. The MSSL engineering group will be key in developing  the design of the on-board electronics, including the payload data handling units, the instrument control units, the flight digital  electronics and the power supply units on board the spacecraft. Other  contributions of MSSL include technical support in the spacecraft design  and in the construction of the micro-channel plate detectors of the LAD, the main instrument aboard LOFT. 

"LOFT will yield a breakthrough in the study of the fast and violently variable X-ray Universe, making a major step forward in terms of collecting area and sensitivity with respect to the NASA's ROSSI X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), in orbit for over 15 years now", says Dr Mignani. "This is a mission of terrific potential"  Dr Zane adds "we are really looking forward the possibility to flight a 10m2 class X-ray telescope capable to perform such high time resolution observations. This is a very ambitious goal that will open a new window on our understanding of the strongest gravitational and magnetic fields in the Universe". 

The mission was selected from nearly 50 highly rated proposals submitted to the European Space Agency. "It has been hard, and of course the competion was fierce. We are delighted to have been selected and made eligible for further study, and we are now looking forward for a  possible launch," said Dr Zane.  "With all current X-ray missions being probably decommissioned by 2020, LOFT may be the only one in this energy band flying in the next decade. This will make it an unvaluable resource for the entire X-ray astrophysics community." add Dr Mignani.

From: Silvia Zane, Roberto Mignani, Dave Walton, Berend Winter, Phil Guttridge, Dhiren Kataria, Phil Smith.

LOFT effective area

LOFT effective area vs. energy, as compared to that of other satellite for X-ray astronomy. (Image Credit: LOFT Team, IASF/INAF Rome, Thales Alenia Space Italia)