China has launched an X-ray satellite that will study neutron stars and black holes as well as search the sky for new X-ray sources.
The country’s official Xinhua news agency reported that the 2.5-ton Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), the latest of several X-ray telescopes in space, launched on board a Long March-4B rocket from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 15.
Equipped with three X-ray telescopes, HXMT will orbit 342 miles (550 km) above the Earth, where it will observe neutron stars, black holes, and gamma-ray bursts while attempting to catch transient X-ray flares, which are difficult to observe because they are unpredictable, quick, and short-lived.
China’s first astronomical satellite, HXMT is expected to operate for four years. It is the final mission of four outlined in a five-year plan developed by the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Space Science Center (NSSC).
The other three probes discussed in the plan will study dark matter, do experiments in microgravity, and conduct a test of long-range quantum entanglement.
As required by China’s funding system, all four missions had to be developed simultaneously.
Because it observes X-rays, HXMT is capable of viewing the universe’s most turbulent events. These events generate X-rays, which cannot penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, so they can be seen only by satellites or instruments placed on high-altitude balloons.
Chinese astronomers also plan to use the satellite to observe the interiors and magnetic fields of pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars; search for gamma-ray bursts, and explore the use of pulsars as navigation tools for spacecraft.
“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,” noted HXMT lead scientist Zhang Shuangnan.
Andrew Fabian, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said the astronomy community welcomes China’s accomplishment.
“It’s very meaningful that they’ve launched their first astronomical satellite, and this will pave the way for others,” he said.
China’s NSSC already has funding for its next five-year plan, which seeks to launch four new space missions between 2020 and 2022 as well as establish its own crewed space station during that time period.