Cameras designed for capturing black holes are now exploring a new frontier: they are helping us to get up close to viruses on Earth, opening the door to solving medical problems.  

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

XMM-Newton spacecraft

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.

XMM-Newton image of star AB Aurigae

“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.

“All must be built so the area around the detector stays extremely clean, and all must function in space vacuum.“ Special electronics are also required to drive and operate the detectors.Imagen

 

http://spaceinimages.esa.int/Images/2013/03/Mimi_virus