Focus on China: Chinese scientists imitate lobster eyes to observe the universe

Image of the galaxy taken by the Lobster Eye Imager for Astronomy in August 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

BEIJING – Scientists looking into the distant universe are sometimes inspired by the diverse species on Earth. The most recent example is the lobster-eye telescope developed and launched by Chinese scientists.

The National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) recently revealed the first batch of large-field X-ray maps of the sky captured by the Lobster Eye Telescope, or Lobster Eye Imager for Astronomy (LEIA).

Launched into space in late July, the LEIA is a wide-field X-ray imaging telescope, the first of its kind in the world, according to the NAOC. It is expected that through the “lobster’s eye” people will be able to efficiently observe mysterious transient phenomena in the universe.

private eye

The most special feature of LEIA is the 36 micro-porous lobster glasses and 4 large-array CMOS sensors, all developed by China.

Early biologists discovered that the lobster’s eye is different from other animals. The eyes of lobsters consist of many small square tubes that point to the same spherical center. This structure allows light from all directions to be reflected in the tubes and converge on the retina, giving lobsters a wide field of view.

In 1979, an American scientist proposed to simulate the eye of a lobster to create a telescope for detecting X-rays in space. But this idea didn’t materialize for long until microprocessing technology had improved sufficiently to make it possible. Then the scientists developed lobster-eye glasses covered with small square holes the thickness of a hair.

NAOC’s X-ray Imaging Laboratory began research and development work on lobster-eye X-ray imaging technology in 2010, and finally made significant progress.

The newly launched LEIA not only features the much-awaited lobster eye glasses, but also pioneers the installation of CMOS sensors, which can process with high spectral resolution.

“We have realized the application of CMOS sensors to X-ray astronomical observations in space for the first time. It is an important innovation in X-ray astronomy detection technology,” said Ling Zhixing, a scientist at NAOC.

wide angle view

“The lobster’s eye telescope’s biggest advantage is its wide-angle view,” said Ling, who is in charge of the LEIA project.

According to Ling, previous X-ray telescopes had only a field of view roughly the size of the moon as seen from Earth, while this lobster eye telescope is capable of covering a celestial area roughly 1,000 moons in size.

He added, “Twelve such telescopes will be installed on the future Einstein Probe satellite, and their field of view can reach about 10,000 moons.”

Scientists have found that most cosmic objects exhibit complex differences in brightness in the X-ray range. Some objects that do not originally have X-rays can produce one, such as black holes that gobble up stars.

Therefore, the lobster-eye telescope enables more efficient observation of X-ray changes in cosmic objects, and there is a greater probability of detecting cosmic extremes that occur randomly, Ling added.

future probe

As mentioned by Ling, the newly launched LEIA is an experimental module for the Einstein Probe satellite, which is expected to launch at the end of 2023. A total of 12 modules will then be installed on the new satellite.

The program attracted widespread interest worldwide, with the European Space Agency and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany participating in it.

“This technology will revolutionize the observation of the X-ray sky, and the test unit demonstrates the powerful scientific potential of the Einstein probe,” said Paul O’Brien, Head of Astrophysics at the University of Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

“We have finally succeeded in obtaining the observation results of the Lobster’s Eye Telescope after more than a decade of hard efforts, and we are all very proud of our ability to contribute such advanced equipment to the world’s astronomical research,” said Zhang Chen. Assistant Principal Investigator for the Einstein Probe Program.

According to Zhang, the Einstein probe will conduct a systematic survey of the sky to observe high-energy transiting objects in the universe.

The mission is expected to discover black holes covered with their symbols, map the distribution of black holes in the universe, and help us study their formation and evolution.

The Einstein probe will also be used to search for and identify X-ray signals from gravitational wave events. Moreover, it will be used in observing neutron stars, white dwarfs, supernovae, early cosmic gamma explosions, and other objects and phenomena.

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