X-Ray Astronomy

Chinese Rocket Lofts the Einstein Probe and its “Lobster Eyes”

Any astronomical instrument dubbed “Lobster Eyes” is bound to grab attention. It’s actually unlike scientists to give anything creative names, take the big red coloured storm on Jupiter which resembles a spot…aka the Great Red Spot! Lobster Eyes is the name adtoped by the X-ray telescope that just been launched from China and will scan the sky looking for X-rays coming from high-energy transients. 

The instrument, which is more properly called the Einstein Probe, is a collaboration between The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE). It was launched on 9 January at 07:03 on a Chang Zheng 2C rocket from China. Having launched succesfully, it reached its orbit at an altitude of 600 kilometres, circling the Earth once every 96 minutes. Its orbital parameters mean it can observe the entire night sky in only three orbits. Now it has settle into its orbit, it has begun preparing its mission to scour the skies for x-ray bursts from neutron stars and black holes. 

In order for the probe to deliver on the required efficiency, it is home to two instruments, the Wide-field X-ray Telescope (WXT) and the Follow-up X-ray Telescope (FXT). Together they afford a wide field and sensitive view of the sky in X-rays. The optical design of the WXT is unique, loosely resembling a mult-segment mirror telescope. It is a modular configuration with thousands of square fibre optics that collect and channel light onto the detectors. It is for this reason it got the nickname ‘Lobster Eyes’.  In one image, it can obeserve nearly one-tenth of the sky in a single capture. As soon as a new X-ray source is detected by the WXT, then FXT fires up and captures a more detailed, sensitive view of the object. 

ESA have been a key partner in the project and played a major part in its development. They supported the testing and callibration of the detectors and optics of WXT, along with MPE they developed the mirror assembly of one of the FXT telescopes and provided the system to deflect unwanted electrons away from the detectors. As the mission progresses, they will also use ESA ground stations to collect the data, and in return for all this, ESA will get 10% of the data. 

Now the probe has been succesfully deployed it is tuning in to X-ray radiation. X-rays are among the more energetic types of radiation and studying them helps us to understand more about the energetic processes in the Universe. Such events might include neutron star collisions, supernovae and numerous black hole events. 

This X-ray image of Cygnus X-1 was taken by a balloon-borne telescope, the High Energy Replicated Optics (HERO) project. NASA image.

It will be a few months yet before data starts to flow back from Lobster Eyes since it has to first go through a callibration phase that is expected to last around six months. On completion, the probe is expected to spend at least three years watching the sky, waiting for X-ray events to help develop our understanding of the cosmos. 

Source : Einstein Probe lifts off on a mission to monitor the X-ray sky

Mark Thompson

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