China has launched its first X-ray space telescope, aimed at studying black holes, pulsars, and gamma ray bursts, state media reported. The launch is expected to bring “new breakthroughs in physics,” according to the project’s lead scientist.
The 2.5-tonne Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), named ‘Insight,’ was launched on Thursday morning from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi desert, Xinhua reported. It was delivered into orbit, 550km (341 miles) above the Earth, by the Long March-4B rocket.
Chinese scientists say Insight will allow them to observe magnetic fields and the interiors of pulsars and better understand the evolution of black holes, AFP reported.
Specifically, Insight will seek out new black hole activity by searching the Milky Way for celestial bodies that emit X-rays.
Although black holes are usually undetectable, scientists are able to study the X-rays emitted when matter falls into a black hole and is accelerated and heated, lead scientist Zhang Shuangnan said, as quoted by Xinhua.
According to Zhang, Insight is more capable of finding black holes and neutron stars that emit bright X-rays than other countries’ space telescopes, because it has a larger detection area and a broader energy range which makes it easier to scan the galaxy.
And although very bright objects can typically result in image over-exposure due to a large number of photon particles, Insight’s designers have managed to avoid that problem by diffusing photons.
“No matter how bright the sources are, our telescope won’t be blinded,” chief designer Chen Yong said.
The telescope will also help scientists search for gamma-ray bursts related to gravitational waves, and study how pulsars can be utilized for spacecraft navigation.
“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 said.
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“These studies are expected to bring new breakthroughs in physics,” he added.
The Thursday launch is the latest achievement from China’s ambitious multibillion-dollar space program.
The country successfully docked its first cargo spacecraft with an orbiting space lab in April, a move seen as a major step towards its goal of having its own crewed space station by 2022.
Last month, China launched a simulated ‘space cabin,’ allowing scientists to better understand what will be required for humans to live on the moon for extended periods of time.
Beijing aims to send a probe to the dark side of the moon by 2018, and to put astronauts on the moon by 2036.