These space cameras are opening new frontiers in life sciences by probing ultrafast physical, chemical and biochemical processes at the atomic level, gaining clearer images of structures such as viruses and proteins.
A descendant of the X-ray space camera took the first images of the Mimi virus, the largest and most complex virus currently known. Analysis of this intriguing virus may shed light on basic questions of viral evolution and, perhaps, the origins of life.
Spin-off from space programme
Researchers at the University of Leicester in the UK developed special X-ray cameras for ESA’s XMM-Newton satellite in the early 1990s.
“ESA funded a lot of that early work to create the X-ray sensors,” said Karen Holland, CEO of XCAM, the company founded in 1995 as a spin-off from the university to develop and market these advanced techniques.
Complex technology is required to take snapshots of the Universe’s X-rays, which are generated by extremely hot objects or from strong magnetic or gravitational fields.
“Things like black holes are what you’re looking for, really, with this technique,” notes Karen.
“In order to capture an image in space, you often need many detectors, so the mechanical camera head on a satellite’s X-ray telescope is a very complicated item. It needs to hold and handle the detectors in an array, but must also be lightweight.