Lobster’s eye on the sky

X-ray telescopes based on the eye of the lobster would be able to observe all the sky, all the time.

“Look behind you!” would be lost on a lobster – it already has the ability too see all around itself without turning its head. Now UK astronomers have designed a revolutionary new X-ray telescope that is based on the crustacean’s all-encompassing field of vision.

Many observations made in the X-ray spectrum are sudden and unpredictable and might be missed if astronomers have their telescopes pointed elsewhere. The ideal would be to have an eye on all the sky. This is the Lobster concept, conceived by Dr Nigel Bannister of the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester. His findings have recently been presented at the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting.

“The great advantage of the Lobster design is an almost unlimited field of view,” said Dr. Bannister. “This makes it ideal for use as an all-sky X-ray monitor.”

Lobsters and some other crustaceans view the world through eyes that focus light over a very wide field of view by means of reflection, rather than by refraction as in the human eye. The lobster eye is an array of tube-like channels with a square cross-section.

Using a similar design for an X-ray telescope was first proposed back in 1977. The optic technology has now been sufficiently perfected for practical use and a prototype has been tested. The Lobster All-Sky X-ray Monitor successfully completed a detailed European Space Agency (ESA) Phase-A study in 2005.

“The studies of Lobster conducted with ESA since 2001 suggest that the instrument will have an impact on almost every area of astrophysics,” said Professor George Fraser, Director of the University of Leicester Space Research Centre and leader of the international team which has been studying Lobster.

“Originally, these studies concentrated on mounting the Lobster telescope modules on the International Space Station (ISS), but more recently we’ve been looking at a free-flying satellite platform provided by the Russians.

“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 supernovæ and the enigmatic gamma-ray bursts,” said Fraser.