China launches probe to shed light on black holes

After decades of engineering work, nation sends up telescope with some of the most powerful technology developed to study the phenomena

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 11:13am

China has launched one of the world’s most powerful space observatories dedicated to the study of black holes, the darkest regions of the universe where gravity is so strong not even light escapes.

The project was decades in the making, and development became so complicated at one point that authorities came close to scrapping it.

But on Thursday a Long March 4B rocket finally blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia to send the Hard ­X-ray Modulation Telescope – or HXMT – into orbit some 550km above Earth, according to Xinhua.

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Space agencies in the United States, Europe, Japan and India have already launched nearly 10 satellites to find and observe black holes, which remain one of the most mysterious phenomena known to physics.

Chinese astronomers have hoped to contribute to the research, too. But without their own satellite, they were limited to dated, second-hand data that had already been analysed and put aside by their overseas colleagues, “if we were lucky”, said Wu Xuebing, professor of astrophysics at Peking University.

“The HXMT will change the game.”

The collecting area of the 2.5-tonne telescope is more than half a square metre, the world’s largest for the study of black holes, according to Xiong Shaolin, a space scientist involved in the project.

In comparison, the Chandra X-ray Observatory operated by Nasa has a collecting area about 400 square centimetres.

“The larger the collecting area, the more signals can be detected,” Xiong was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

Using a unique panoramic lens, the HXMT can make a scan of the galaxy in two days, faster than other satellites dedicated to searching for black holes, he said.

The HXMT is one of few Chinese satellites using many devices built from scratch. Although the first blueprint was finished as early as the 1990s, the team encountered so many technological difficulties the project was nearly abandoned by the government.

Wu, who was not directly involved in the project, said the HXMT’s design was “genius”.

“With continuous improvements over the decades, the idea still looks good and fresh today,” he said.

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A black hole sucks celestial objects such as stars and planets towards itself with enormous gravitational force. These objects emit strong electromagnetic waves when they are devoured.

By analysing the waves, scientists hope to better understand the process and the physical nature of the black hole itself.

Among the electromagnetic waves, only those with high energy such as hard X-rays can penetrate space dust and travel the long distance to Earth. But because the atmosphere absorbs ­X-rays, satellites must be used to collect the signals.

The project is part of China’s ambitious effort to catch up and compete with other nations in fundamental research in space. In recent years, the nation has sent up numerous research satellites including a dark matter probe and the world’s first quantum satellite.

According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China will launch more than 20 satellites to study a range of scientific goals between 2016 and 2030.