Hong Kong University plans to send lobster-eye X-ray satellite into orbit, in search of dark matter

First-of-its-kind satellite to be launched from mainland China ... as long as its designers secure funding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 5:56pm

Hong Kong is staking its claim for a slice of the multibillion-dollar space exploration pie, with the city’s oldest university planning to launch a mainland Chinese-built microsatellite into orbit.

The Laboratory for Space Research (LSR) at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) needs school officials to award it funding of about 15 million yuan (HK$18.4 million), and the lab’s chief said he was hopeful the project would go ahead.

“The satellite payload is a lobster-eye X-ray telescope ... to search for dark matter in massive nearby galaxy clusters,” lab director Professor Quentin Parker said.

Dark matter is one of the most important building blocks of our universe, but is little understood by modern science.

“This will also be the first Chinese soft X-ray telescope, and first X-ray telescope using lobster-eye technology worldwide,” Parker said.

The microsatellite uses several hundred microchannel plates, which according to Nasa are “thin, curved slabs of material dotted with tiny tubes across the surface”. It was developed in collaboration with Nanjing University, the Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity, Beijing Aerospace Satelliteherd Science and Technology Co, and Beijing OriginSpace.

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The 50kg X-ray telescope is being built and tested at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp in Beijing. Inspired by a lobster’s vision – the crustacean’s pea-sized eyes give it wide-angle vision – it is called the “lobster-eye X-ray telescope”.

The microsatellite – named the Hong Kong University Satellite No 1 – will be launched on a Chinese rocket from one of the four Chinese launch sites, Parker said.

He said of the 50 million yuan satellite project with Chinese partners: “The LSR sees this opportunity as a chance to give space science more traction in the public eye in Hong Kong and to promote science, technology and high-level engineering to young people so they become engaged and inspired to pursue science and science-related disciplines in higher education.”

But the lab’s initial three-year funding of HK$10 million will run out at the end of the year, said the 56-year-old Parker.

And the laboratory had “struggled to gain sufficient resources to do the serious science that the University of Hong Kong deserves”.

That’s why he welcomed President Xi Jinping’s announcement that Hong Kong scientists would have greater access to national-level funding, once only available to mainland Chinese researchers, as a game changer.

“Even though Hong Kong is a very rich city and a global financial centre after London and New York, we’ve got limited resources and limited land. So you can’t build the facilities here easily. But China has enormous amounts of land, enormous amounts of human capital, and vast financial resources,” he said.

He said the lab also aimed to reach agreements to collaborate with “strategically targeted, global elite” universities and space agencies, similar to the microsatellite project.

Even though Hong Kong is a very rich city and a global financial centre after London and New York, we’ve got limited resources and limited land. So you can’t build the facilities here easily
Professor Quentin Parker

It will sign and mark agreements with Macau and Italian agencies next month as it seeks to enhance its collaborative and “internationalisation” efforts. It will ink a memorandum of understanding with the Macau University of Science and Technology’s Lunar and Planetary Science Laboratory in mid-June, Parker said.

The Macau facility is a partner laboratory of the Key Laboratory of Lunar and Deep Space Exploration of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which has been at the forefront of China’s race to Mars and the moon.

Parker said funding space research should be seen by the university, and the Hong Kong government and the private sector, as a medium-to-long-term investment.

Another member of the HKU lab, visiting professor Albert Zijlstra from the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Manchester, said that, using the European Space Agency's Herschel space observatory, an international team of astronomers had discovered an unusual laser emission, suggesting the presence of a double star system hidden at the heart of the Ant Nebula, an extremely rare phenomenon connected to the death of a star.

Zijlstra, who co-authored the report on the find, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “Lasers are very rare in space. Of course it is not dangerous but it takes very specific conditions to make a laser work.”

It was because of this that the team believed it was a “binary star”, or two stars, one of which is hidden from view.