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'Lobster-inspired' super-lightweight mirror chosen for space mission

26 October 2015

The University of Leicester has signed a contract to develop a novel type of X-ray mirror for a telescope to be flown on an orbiting observatory due for launch in 2021.

The MIXS Flight Model courtesy of the University of Leicester

The Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) is a joint Chinese-French satellite observatory. Designed to study the most powerful explosions in the Universe out to the era of the first generation of stars, SVOM will locate hundreds of gamma-ray bursts signifying the deaths of massive stars.

Traditional X-ray mirrors for space telescopes are made of solid glass or metal and weigh tens of kilograms. The new ‘Lobster’ X-ray mirror for SVOM weighs just one kilo, and so is much easier to launch into orbit.

“Lobsters and similar animals use reflecting mirrors to focus light in their eyes, unlike the lenses used by people," says Professor Julian Osborne, who is leading the work at Leicester. "We can make man-made lobster-type mirrors with the very high degree of smoothness needed to focus X-rays, and make them robust enough to survive the rigours of a rocket launch.”

The Lobster X-ray optic derives from recent work by the Space Research Centre at the University in making a novel X-ray instrument to study the surface of the planet Mercury. This Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) will be launched by the European Space Agency for its seven-year journey in 2017.

Both MIXS and SVOM use square-pore micro-channel plate focussing units made from glass, although MIXS has a more conventional optical design than the SVOM Lobster.

The University of Leicester team has secured a contract from the French Space Agency, CNES, for the manufacture of a Lobster X-ray focussing optic for SVOM that has a value of £3.8 million. The final version of the optic to be launched will be delivered to CNES at the end of 2019.

SVOM will continue the work of finding gamma-ray bursts currently being done by the US/UK/Italian satellite Swift, which is now in the eleventh year of its life.

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