The upcoming Einstein Probe will use its ‘lobster eye’ to hunt for extreme black holes and star explosions

By | December 23, 2023

A new space telescope launching in January 2024 will look at the cosmos with a revolutionary ‘lobster eye’, searching for X-ray bursts arising from some of the most powerful phenomena in the universe, including feeding black holes, colliding neutron stars and exploding stars.

Named after none other than Albert Einsteinthe Einstein Probe is a joint effort between the European Space Agency (ESA), the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

This spacecraft will have highly sensitive, next-generation X-ray instruments and an exceptionally wide field of view, allowing scientists to both locate new events and study them in detail.

“The cosmos is our only laboratory investigating the most energetic processes,” says Erik Kuulkers, ESA’s Einstein Probe project scientist, said in a statement. “Missions like Einstein Probe are essential to further our understanding of these processes and to learn more about fundamental aspects of high-energy physics.”

Related: X-rays show how the 450-year-old Tycho supernova became a giant cosmic particle accelerator

Spotting the most violent events in the cosmos

X-rays are emitted by powerful and violent events such as supernovae, from which they are launched when the cores of dying stars collapse. They are directly connected to stellar material that is shredded before being consumed black holes also, as well as the collisions of ultra-dense, already dead stars called neutron stars.

However, because these violent cosmic events are often short-lived, the X-ray light they emit can be highly variable and unpredictable. This light can appear and disappear incredibly quickly, growing brighter and darker, often appearing in the sky for only a brief moment before disappearing for longer periods – if it appears again at all.

Three people, dressed in white overalls, work around a spacecraft in the shape of two large black cylinders held by a metal frame.Three people, dressed in white overalls, work around a spacecraft in the shape of two large black cylinders held by a metal frame.

Three people, dressed in white overalls, work around a spacecraft in the shape of two large black cylinders held by a metal frame.

Detecting these X-rays is highly desirable to scientists because encoded in this high-energy light is information about the source that produced it. That means that by observing X-rays, the Einstein Probe can help scientists decode such events while allowing astronomers to locate new sources of X-rays.

Because collisions between neutron stars emit both X-rays and X-rays gravitational waves – first predicted by Einstein in his 1915 theory gravity general relativity – the Einstein Probe could help gravitational wave detectors pinpoint the source of these tiny ripples roomtime that have traveled millions or even billions of light years.

This could ultimately help scientists observe these collisions before they fade, revealing more information about the dynamics of these collision events and the unique physics happening around them. For example, heavy elements such as gold are known to form in the wake of neutron star collisions.

Why a ‘lobster eye’?

For his groundbreaking vision the universethe Einstein Probe is equipped with two revolutionary instruments: the Wide-field X-ray Telescope (WXT) and the highly sensitive Follow-up X-ray Telescope (FXT).

The WXT gets its expansive view of the cosmos through its unique modular design, which resembles a lobster’s eye. Lobster eyes, unlike other animal eyes, have evolved to perceive light through reflection rather than refraction, meaning these crustaceans have a remarkable 180-degree field of view.

Thanks to WXT’s so-called “Micro Pore Optics technology”, the Einstein Probe can see 3,600 square degrees, which covers 10% of the entire celestial sphere above Earth, in just one image. This allows him to see almost the whole thing night sky about Soil in just three orbits around the planet, each of which would take the Einstein Probe only about 96 minutes to complete.

Once WXT has spotted an interesting or new X-ray event, the Einstein Probe’s FXT instrument will take over, focusing on the X-ray source and studying it in much more detail.

A diagram explains the Einstein probe's instruments and mission.A diagram explains the Einstein probe's instruments and mission.

A diagram explains the Einstein probe’s instruments and mission.

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In addition, when WXT makes a remarkable X-ray detection, the Einstein probe will send a signal to ground-based observatories, allowing them to train other telescopes on the source and study it in a range of other light frequencies, ranging from low-energy long-wave radio waves to high-energy shortwave gamma rays.

This multi-wavelength data can be critical when conducting detailed research into supernovascollisions between neutron stars and feeding black holes.

“Thanks to its innovative design, Einstein Probe can monitor large parts of the sky at a glance,” said Kuulkers. “In this way we can discover many new sources and at the same time study the behavior of X-ray light coming from known celestial bodies over long periods of time.”

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