China’s first X-ray space telescope will scan Milky Way galaxy

China’s ongoing space programmes clearly suggest that the country wants to explore the universe more than it has ever done. Adding to its list of ambitious space projects, the country on Thursday launched its first X-ray space telescope, hoping to unearth unknown secrets about black holes, neutron stars and extremely energetic explosions observed in distant galaxies called gamma-ray bursts.

The Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), which weighs 2.5 tonnes (2500 kilograms), took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gobi Desert at 11 a.m. local time. The telescope, dubbed Insight, was sent into an orbit of 550 km above the earth by a Long March-4B rocket. Astronomers believe that it will help them better understand the evolution of black holes and magnetic fields, as well as the formation of pulsars.

The space telescope is also expected to help astronomers study the possibility of using pulsars for spacecraft navigation in future, and look for gamma-ray bursts that correspond to gravitational waves. With three powerful detectors to identify high, medium and low energy X-rays, Insight is touted by China as a small observatory in space.

“We are looking forward to discovering new activities of black holes and studying the state of neutron stars under extreme gravity and density conditions, and physical laws under extreme magnetic fields,” Zhang Shuangnan, lead scientist of HXMT, said in a statement.

A Long March-4B rocket carrying X-ray space telescope to observe black holes, pulsars and gamma-ray bursts blasts off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, June 15, 2017.
Source: Xinhua/Zhen Zhe

Compared to other X-ray astronomical satellites, Insight has better features like a larger detection area, broader energy range and a wider field of view, making it easier for the telescope to observe black holes and neutron stars emitting bright X-rays in our Milky Way galaxy.

Unlike NASA’s Chandra observatory, which operates in the “soft X-ray” range of 80 electronvolt (eV) to 10 kiloelectronvolts (keV), Insight will perform its survey on high-energy X-rays with energies between 1 to 250 keV. This will enable it to perform observations that previously required multiple satellites.

The Chinese HXMT’s effective detection area for monitoring gamma-ray bursts is 10 times that of the US Fermi space telescope, allowing it detect almost 200 gamma-ray burst events a year, Xinhua reported, citing scientists associated with the telescope.

“There are so many black holes and neutron stars in the universe, but we don’t have a thorough understanding of any of them. So we need new satellites to observe more,” Zhang said.

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