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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 April 2006, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Telescope to get lobster vision
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News science reporter, Leicester

The Lobster design and the six nested modules
Lobster All-Sky X-ray Monitor is currently in development
The lobster is the inspiration for a new type of European X-ray telescope.

The observatory is designed to have an extremely wide field of view - just as the crustacean manages with its vision.

The animal achieves this using a huge array of tiny channels that focus light by reflection, rather than by bending it through lenses found in human eyes.

A UK-led team is now building a similar set-up for a telescope that will sweep the sky for sudden, violent events, such as black holes swallowing stars.

"In astronomy, you have to look in the right place at the right time; and that means either having to get lucky or to look everywhere at once. Our instrument goes for the looking-everywhere-at-once tactic," Dr Nigel Bannister, from the University of Leicester, told the BBC News website.

The idea of using the lobster-eye design in a telescope to make X-ray surveys was first proposed back in the 1970s, but it has taken almost 30 years to perfect the optics involved.

Violent events

The Lobster All-Sky X-ray Monitor, as it is known, is currently going through its development phases.

It would comprise six nested modules that together would give a 180-degree band of vision. If the telescope is then sent around a 90-minute orbit of the Earth, it would build up a complete picture of the sky.

Close up of the lobster's square pores, University of Leicester
The telescope takes its inspiration from the lobster vision system
The plan is to fly Lobster either on the European or Russian segments of the International Space Station, or possibly on a simple Russian-built satellite platform.

X-rays interest astronomers because they come from very energetic - and often extremely violent - events in the Universe.

"The scientific impact of Lobster will span all of astronomy - from studies of the X-ray emission of comets to stars and quasars, from regular X-ray binaries to the catastrophic events of supernovŠ and the enigmatic gamma-ray bursts," said Professor George Fraser, also of Leicester University and leader of the international team developing Lobster.

"Through frequent re-observation of each point in the sky during the lifetime of the mission, Lobster offers the opportunity to perform deep, sensitive surveys of both galactic and extra-galactic sources."

Phone home

Lobster will be used as an alert system. If it sees an interesting target, it will contact Earth immediately, to call in other telescopes that operate at different wavelengths to follow up the source.

One interesting target for Lobster to track will be superflares. These are colossal explosions in the atmosphere of a star that occur when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields is suddenly released.

International Space Station, Esa
The Lobster could see service on the International Space Station
The phenomenon is short-lived, lasting perhaps just a few hours, but results in an immense emission of radiation and ejection of charged particles.

The effects on any nearby Earth-like planet would be catastrophic.

Its ozone layer would be stripped away, leading to increased radiation at ground level. Mass extinctions could result.

Our Sun experiences regular flaring, but not on this super-scale - at least not that we can see from the geological record.

On the other hand, those occasions when X-ray telescopes have been lucky enough to catch a superflare on their detectors it has tended to be on normal Sun-like stars.

"Indeed, one of the stars these superflare events are associated with is described in the literature as one of the most Sun-like stars out there - a complete twin of the Sun," explained Dr Matt Burleigh, also of Leicester University.

"So you could be worried that this might happen on our Sun if we don't know how likely these events are to happen. That's why we need Lobster."

Lobster is being discussed here at Leicester University, which is hosting this year's National Astronomy Meeting.


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