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China's First Space Observatory Turns on X-ray Detectors

Sep 08, 2017     Email"> PrintText Size

The main detectors on China's first space observatory, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), have been powered up as the satellite enters a period of on-orbit testing.

HXMT, also known as '慧眼' (Huiyan) or 'Insight', was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre atop a Long March 4B rocket on June 15.

The probe's three sets of main detectors have now been booted, according to the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP).

The low-energy detectors (LE) and mid-range detectors (ME) were switched on on June 19, with the high-energy detector (HE) following on June 21.

Together they will collect highly energetic x-rays emitted by black holes, neutron stars and other phenomena across a range of 1-250 kiloelectron volts (keV).

Black holes and neutron stars are the main sources of cosmic X-rays, but these can only be seen from space, as the Earth's atmosphere absorbs X-rays.

Zhang Shuangnan, principal investigator of the project, says that HXMT will survey the Galactic plane to create a high precision x-ray map of the sky.

The probe's wide range of energy coverage means it may pick up previously undiscovered black holes in the Milky Way, and perhaps even new types of objects.

The HXMT satellite under development (CASC).

Above: The HXMT satellite under development (CAST). 

HMXT is currently orbiting between 538 and 547 km above the Earth, inclined by 43 degrees, where it is expected to operate for at least four years.

It joins a number of X-ray observatories in orbit, including NASA's Chandra and NuSTAR, and XMM-Newton, launched by the European Space Agency.

HXMT will also look for the electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves, which were first detected by LIGO in 2015, and gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) up to energies of 3,000 keV.
Another potential use of the satellite is to explore the mechanisms of neutron star and pulsar timing, following on from the cutting edge XPNAV-1 satellite launched last autumn, potentially working in concert with the Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou Province.

Dawn of Chinese space science

HXMT was the fourth and final launch of a first batch of space science missions developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), follows the DAMPE dark matter probe, the Shijian-10 retrievable microgravity experiment satellite, and the pioneering QUESS quantum science satellite.

A second batch of five missions are already under development, with launches expected around 2020.

They are the space-weather observatory mission in collaboration with the European Space Agency (SMILE), a global water cycle observation mission (WCOM), the Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Thermosphere mission (MIT), the Einstein Probe (EP), and the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S). (gbtimes)


(Editor: CHEN Na)



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