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ROSAT resulted from a proposal made by the Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE) to the Bundesministerium für Forschung und Technologie (BMFT) in 1975. The original version of the project entailed an all-sky X-ray survey to be carried out with a moderate angular resolution ( ) imaging telescope. Between 1977 and 1982, extensive studies of the project were carried out by German space companies in prephase A and phase A. Following the regulations of the ESA convention, BMFT offered collaboration on ROSAT to the ESA member states in 1979. The University of Leicester (UK) proposed a Wide Field XUV Camera (WFC) to be flown together with the X-ray telescope in order to extend the spectral band pass to lower energies; the memorandum of understanding with SERC was signed in 1983. In 1982 an agreement between NASA and BMFT about US participation in the ROSAT project was reached. NASA agreed to provide a high resolution imager (HRI) for the focal plane of the XRT as well as the ROSAT launch with the Space Shuttle.
The Challenger tragedy of 28 January 1986 brought about a significant change for the ROSAT project. In December 1987, the decision was made to launch ROSAT with an expendable launch vehicle (Delta II) instead of the Space Shuttle. ROSAT was launched from Cape Canaveral on 1 June 1990.