New space mission to find explosive transients in the universe

Posted by Paul O’Brien and Ian Hutchinson at Nov 29, 2019 12:00 AM |
Leicester physicists are leading the development of a revolutionary instrument to find explosive transients in the universe
New space mission to find explosive transients in the universe

The soft X-ray imager is composed of four identical modules designed in the Physics & Astronomy Department

The European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency are funding Leicester scientists designing an instrument for a new mission called THESEUS, which will dramatically increase the rate of discovery of explosive transients in the universe. Leicester leads the primary soft X-ray instrument (SXI) on THESEUS. The SXI is designed to detect the most distant, luminous transients – Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) – which typically last for only a few tens to hundreds of seconds.


Traditional X-ray telescopes have a small field of view, comparable to the size of the full Moon. By cunningly adapting the way Lobsters view the world, scientists at Leicester have designed a focussing X-ray telescope with a field of view some 20000 times bigger than before! This extraordinary capability will enable a GRB discovery rate far in excess of current facilities, and will find large numbers of other transient types. THESEUS will also carry a high-energy instrument and an infrared telescope to provide extended wavelength coverage and enable on-board distance determination. Professor Paul O’Brien, the Principal Investigator for the SXI, said “Taking an optics lesson from nature will allow us to find the first GRBs, and will hence locate where the first stars were born. The SXI continues Leicester’s long-standing role in innovative technology”.


THESEUS is under Phase A study by ESA for the so-called ‘Medium-5’ mission, with a total budget in excess of 600 million euros. If selected in 2021, THESEUS would be built by an international consortium for launch in 2032. The SXI instrument scientist, Dr Ian Hutchinson, said “Leicester has a key role in developing both optics and decectors for the SXI. These technologies also have multiple applications for other missions.”


The Leicester THESEUS project team includes Paul O’Brien, Ian Hutchinson, Hannah Lerman, Melissa McHugh, Andrew Beardmore, Paul Drumm, Roisin Speight, Alexander Lodge, Charly Feldman, and Richard Willingale.

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