China launches space telescope to observe black holes, pulsars and gamma ray bursts

China on Thursday launched its first space telescope to observe black holes, pulsars and gamma-ray bursts. The 2.5-tonne Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) was launched via a Long March-4B rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gobi Desert at 11 a.m., reports Xinhua news agency. The HXMT, dubbed Insight, was sent into an orbit of 550 km above the earth to help scientists better understand the evolution of black holes, and the strong magnetic fields and the interiors of pulsars.

Through the telescope, scientists will also study how to use pulsars for spacecraft navigation, and search for gamma-ray bursts corresponding to gravitational waves. Insight is expected to push forward the development of space astronomy and improve space X-ray detection technology in China. Insight can be regarded as a small observatory in space, as it carries a trio of detectors -- the high energy X-ray telescope (HE), the medium energy X-ray telescope (ME) and the low energy X-ray telescope (LE) — that cover a broad energy band from 1 keV to 250 keV, said Lu Fangjun, chief designer of the payload.

Based on the demodulation technique first proposed by Li Tipei, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1993, the HE has a total detection area of more than 5,000, the world's largest in its energy band. "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. These studies are expected to bring new breakthroughs in physics," said Zhang Shuangnan, the HXMT lead scientist.

"There are so many black holes and neutron stars in the universe, but we don't have a thorough understanding of any of them. So we need new satellites to observe more," Zhang said. So far about 20 black holes have been found in our galaxy. "We hope our telescope can discover more black holes. We also hope to better observe the black holes already discovered." HXMT's effective detection area for monitoring gamma-ray bursts is 10 times that of the US Fermi space telescope.

Scientists estimate that HXMT could detect almost 200 gamma-ray burst events a year.

Updated Date: Jun 16, 2017 06:48 AM