Scientists and space engineers from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong are joining forces on a space telescope project to search for dark matter in galaxy clusters about 300 million light years away.

The space telescope, with a detector that looks like the eye of a lobster, has been named HKU No.1 and is expected to be catapulted into space next year, according to Xinhua.

It is a project involving the University of Hong Kong, Nanjing University, Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity under the China Academy of Space Technology, as well as two private space companies.

Inspired by the structure of a lobster’s eye, US scientists invented the focusing technology in the late 1970s. Its biggest advantage is its wide-angle vision.

The lobster eye has a reflective structure above a convex retina. In contrast, most complex eyes use refractive ray concentrators, or lenses, and a concave retina.

800px-Eyestalk_of_Lobster
The eyestalks of a lobster. Photo: WikiMedia

Many laboratories around the world have made lobster-eye probes to detect X-rays in space, but none have been sent into orbit.

Su Yun, the director of the R&D center at the Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity, said the institute started to develop a lobster-eye X-ray focusing detector in 2013 and made breakthroughs in the core technology at the end of 2015.

In 2016, HKU and other organizations joined the bid to apply the technology in space astronomy, the Shanghai Daily reported.

Astronomical observations show all the known matter accounts for only about one fifth of the universe, while the absolute majority of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy.

Regarded as the two “dark clouds” over 21st century physics, dark matter and dark energy are at the frontier of basic physics and cosmology.

What is dark matter? There are many hypotheses.

China launched the Dark Matter Particle Explorer, nicknamed Wukong or Monkey King, at the end of 2015 to detect high-energy electrons and gamma rays in space, which might be generated in the process of annihilation or decay of dark matter.

“Our lobster-eye telescope is going to investigate a key ‘suspect’ of dark matter, the sterile neutrino,” said Su Meng, deputy director of the HKU Laboratory for Space Research.

The satellite will also be used to study hot gas in rich galaxy clusters, observe comets in the solar system and explore the interaction of solar wind with the earth’s magnetosphere, said Su.

Quentin Parker, the associate dean of HKU’s Faculty of Science, said the broad mission scope is highly interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of astronomy, earth science and planetary science.

The mainland’s significant investment in missions to the moon, Mars and the upcoming Tiangong space station will provide bridgeheads for Hong Kong-based scientists for advance their research, said Parker.

HKU has also earmarked HK$10 million (US$1.28 million) into building a new space research laboratory in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province.

The lab will fund the work of two postdoctoral fellows from top mainland institutions, including the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University and a space and astrophysics group at Nanjing University.