Saturday, June 17, 2017

China successfully launches x-ray satellite 慧眼 using Long March 4B

China's first astronomical satellite,  慧眼, "insight" or "smart eye", an x-ray telescope that will search the sky for black holes, neutron stars, was placed into orbit today after an early morning launch from the Inner Mongolia Desert.

The 2.8-ton Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), dubbed Insight according to  Xinhua news agency, was carried aloft by a Long March-4B medium lift rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center 酒泉衛星發射中心. The newest of several x-ray telescope in space, the HXMT will observe some of the most turbulent processes in the universe. The x-rays generated by those events cannot penetrate Earth's atmosphere; they can only be observed by high-altitude balloons or satellites. The HXMT carries three x-ray telescopes observing at energy ranging from 20 to 200 kilo-electron volts as well as an instrument to inspect the space environment, according to its designers. While orbiting 600 kilometers above the planet, the HXMT will perform a sky survey that is expected to discover many new x-ray sources. Over an expected operating lifetime of 4 years, it will also conduct focused observations of black holes, neutron stars, and gamma ray bursts.

This great achievement by China's space science program "is certainly welcomed" by the world community, says Andrew Fabian, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge in England. "It is very meaningful that they have launched their first astronomical satellite and this will pave the way for others,” he says. Fabian believes that the HXMT sky survey will prove particularly valuable for catching transient x-ray sources that emerge, flare up to tremendous brightness, and then just as quickly fade away. As yet, the processes behind x-ray transients are poorly understood. Other missions are also trying to catch transients in the act. But "any satellite looking at that phenomena is going to find interesting things and do good science," Fabian says.

The "Insight" is the last of the cluster of four space science missions covered under China 12th 5-year plan that were developed by the National Space Science Center (NSSC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing-the other three are a dark matter probe, a collection of microgravity experiments, and a test of long-range quantum entanglement. Funding constraints meant all four had to be developed simultaneously, and all four were launched over the course of 18 months. " This is not a sustainable way to have a science program," NSSC Director  told Science in a 2016 interview.

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