China tests world’s first ‘lobster eye’ space telescope to X-ray universe more accurately

The telescope will be able to observe "10,000 full moons," compared to NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which takes images slightly larger than the size of the full moon.
Baba Tamim
Lobster eye telescope aborad Einstein Probe will monitor the X-ray sky to discover & characterize high-energy transients and variability in X-ray band.
Lobster eye telescope aborad Einstein Probe will monitor the X-ray sky to discover & characterize high-energy transients and variability in X-ray band.

Einstein Probe
 

The world's first "lobster eye" space telescope, which will enable researchers to record X-ray images of the universe accurately, has undergone successful testing in China.

Lobster Eye Imager for Astronomy (LEIA), the 53 kg (117 lb) telescope, captured high-quality photographs of X-ray sources of the cosmos, according to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters last week. 

"We are very excited about LEIA's results. They've shown that our technology works and the observation precision exceeded our expectation," said astrophysicist Yuan Weimin, the mission's chief scientist from the National Astronomical Observatory in Beijing.

China tests world’s first ‘lobster eye’ space telescope to X-ray universe more accurately
An image of the central sky zone of the Milky Way obtained by the lobster-eye telescope in August 2022.

The telescope captured the center of our galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds and the Scorpius constellation, at a distance of 500 km (310 miles) above the Earth. 

X-rays have a strong penetrating strength, making them challenging to reflect and focus on. 

According to Weimin, no existing X-ray telescope could capture high-resolution photographs of a sufficiently vast area of the sky. While some could quickly sweep the sky and only detect the brightest sources, others could precisely track one source and not much else.

The Einstein Probe, a much larger telescope being created by Chinese and European scientists and set to be launched into orbit late next year to revolutionize understanding of the X-ray universe, will utilize LEIA's technology.

Why the lobster eye? 

China tests world’s first ‘lobster eye’ space telescope to X-ray universe more accurately
Proposed “Lobster-Eye” optics to locate the source of cosmic ripples -2017.

Biologists first learned how crustaceans like lobster and shrimp had eyes to adapt to their "murky" underwater habitats in the 1970s.

The lobster has an infinite field of vision thanks to the structure that allows light to reflect in all directions inside the tubes and converge on the retina.

The many small square tubes that make up a lobster's eye all aim toward the same spherical center.

For X-ray telescopes to obtain a wide and deep vision simultaneously, American astronomer Roger Angel suggested employing a similar method.

The idea was a tremendous engineering task back then. It wasn't until recently that it was finally feasible, thanks to advancements in microprocessing technology and the development of the micropore optics technique.

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The new lobster-eye technology was created over ten years by Weimin's team and engineers from North Night Vision Technology, a Nanjing-based firm in China.

"The surface of the pores needs to be extremely flat and smooth, with less than one nanometre of error," said Weimin.

Einstein Prob

China tests world’s first ‘lobster eye’ space telescope to X-ray universe more accurately
A Chinese researcher installs the lobster-eye telescope, or the Lobster Eye Imager for Astronomy (LEIA), on Nov. 22, 2021.

Each of the 12 modules that make up the main telescope on the Einstein Probe has more than 30 million square micropores. To boost reflectivity, an ultrathin layer of iridium is applied to the pores, which measure 40 micrometers along the side.

The best X-ray observatory operated by NASA, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, can only capture images slightly larger than the size of the full moon. While as the architecture of the Einstein Probe will allow the telescope to observe an area of the sky comparable to 10,000 full moons. 

Weimin's team also created complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) sensors that serve as detectors for X-rays and transform them into electric signals for digital processing.

CMOS sensors are frequently used in camera phones, but according to Weimin, "it's probably the first time they are used for X-ray detection in space."  

These sensors are substantially less expensive, require less cooling, and have quick readout speeds than conventional CCD (charge-coupled device) sensors, as per him. 

The Einstein Probe is anticipated to discover many faint or far-off high-energy cosmic events once it is in orbit. It is claimed to revolutionize research on the supermassive black holes that are the nuclei of most galaxies, South China Morning Post (SCMPreported on Monday. 

'Lobster eye' telescope to liftoff in 2023 

China tests world’s first ‘lobster eye’ space telescope to X-ray universe more accurately
Chinese researchers test the lobster-eye telescope, or the Lobster Eye Imager for Astronomy (LEIA), on Nov. 27, 2021.

Even though scientists from the U.S., Europe, and Japan have suggested related projects, they have yet to advance to the design stage. Therefore, there won't be much international competition when the Einstein Probe launches, stated Weimin.

The telescope is scheduled to lift off in late 2023 after a work delay due to the Corona pandemic. According to the chief scientist, the team is aiming for five years even though the telescope has a three-year design lifespan. 

He stated that the observation data would be shared with colleagues in Europe and elsewhere.

On board SATech-01, an experimental satellite, LEIA was launched on July 27 from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China as the Einstein Probe's pathfinder mission.

The European Space Agency and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany provided hardware for the 780 million yuan (U.S. $111.6 million) project.