We present the results of a study based on an XMM-Newton Performance Verification observation of the central 30' of the nearby spiral galaxy M 31. In the 34-ks European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC) exposure, we detect 116 sources down to a limiting luminosity of 6 x 1035 erg s-1 (0.3-12 keV, d=760 kpc). The luminosity distribution of the sources detected with XMM-Newton flattens at luminosities below ~ 2.5 1037 erg s-1 . We make use of hardness ratios for the detected sources in order to distinguish between classes of objects such as super-soft sources and intrinsically hard or highly absorbed sources. We demonstrate that the spectrum of the unresolved emission in the bulge of M 31 contains a soft excess which can be fitted with a ~ 0.35-keV optically-thin thermal-plasma component clearly distinct from the composite point-source spectrum. We suggest that this may represent diffuse gas in the centre of M 31, and we illustrate its extent in a wavelet-deconvolved image.
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