Through a Lobster's Eyes

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From the annals of “How did I miss that story?”: While reading a news snippet about how scientists hope to mimic the structure of a mantis shrimp’s eyes to improve on the next generation of Blu-Ray players, I stumbled on the fact that there is an X-ray space telescope under development using technology based on lobster vision. It’s called the Lobster All-Sky X-Ray Monitor (LASXM), and according to Nigel Bannister of the University of Leicester, the telescope would be “ideal for use as an all-sky X-ray monitor” because of its unlimited field of view.”

It’s not a new idea: in fact, it was first proposed in the 1970s by a scientist at the University of Arizona named Roger Angel, but it’s taken 30 years for optics to advance to the point where building such a technology is even possible.

What makes lobsters special? Well, they have these pea-sized compound eyes made up of long, narrow square cells that give the creature a 180-degree field of view. This allows for maximum reflectivity; each cell captures a tiny amount of light, but the light enters the eye from many different angles and only then is the light focused into a single image. Lobsters don’t have great image resolution, but they don’t really need it. What they do have is ultra-sensitivity to detect movement, and even the polarization of light.

LASXM would mimic that structure with a new technology called microchannel plates: six nested modules — each a bundle of 3 million parallel glass channels — that would combine to give the instrument that same 180-degree field of view. Put it orbit around the Earth aboard a satellite or the International Space Station, such that it completes its orbit every 90 minutes, and you would quickly compile a complete x-ray picture of the sky.

This is a significant improvement over the x-ray telescopes currently in use, which can only survey a narrow strip of sky at a time. This means that astronomers frequently miss fleeting bursts and flashes, harbingers of some fascinating cosmic events, from the x-ray emissions of comets, stars and quasars, to supernovae and mysterious gamma-ray bursts. “In astronomy you have to look at the right place at the right time, and

that means either having to get lucky or to look everywhere at once,”

Bannister told BBC News a few years ago. “Our instrument goes for the looking-everywhere-at-once tactic.”

Of particular interest are so-called “superflares,” explosions that

occur in the atmosphere of a star when energy stored in its twisted

magnetic fields is suddenly released. Many stars in which such

superflares have been observed are the size of our sun. While our sun

has yet to exhibit a superflare, the effect on Earth should one occur

would be catastrophic, to put it mildly.

Closer to Earth, there’s also a new Lobster Eye X-Ray Imaging Device (LEXID) being developed by a company called Physics Optics in Torrance, California — basically an x-ray scanner in a box. Once again, the appeal is the lobster’s amazing ability to “see” through silt and sand while underwater. Among the applications: mounting the device on a robot and using it to detect roadside bombs. Who knew crustaceans could prove so inspirational?

Image (top): Hawaiian Lobster (Enoplometopus occidentalis) by “Vic”, Biomimicry Institute’s Ask Nature.