On Thursday, China launched a new X-ray telescope to study pulsars, black holes, and gamma-ray bursts. Chinese astronomers will no longer rely on second-hand data from foreign satellites to make discoveries.
It is the first time China delves in X-ray astronomy and designs a space telescope for such purpose.
In comparison, NASA has several X-ray observatories, out of which the Chandra X-ray Observatory (CXO), launched on 1999, is the most recognizable.
Studying black holes with a new and powerful observatory
The Chinese space agency launched the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) aboard a Long March-4B rocket from Kiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. The 2.5-ton observatory was named Insight, and it is expected to orbit 343 miles above the Earth.
Its purpose is to study how black holes evolve, and the ways to use pulsars for spacecraft navigation. The observatory will also try to detect gamma-ray bursts caused by gravitational waves.
It carries three X-ray telescopes of different intensities, whose high-energy telescope has a larger detection area than any other device in its energy band. Its state-of-the-art technology will allow the HXMT to detect more features of known sources, according to researchers.
“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,” stated Zhang Shuangman, HXMT’s lead scientist.
To date, researchers know of about 20 black holes in our galaxy. The HXMT team is expecting to discover more and to obtain better observations of those already characterized. The issue is that because black holes consume everything, including light, they are only observable when matter falls into them. When this occurs, matter accelerates and heats up intensely, emitting X-rays. Hopefully, the HXMT will capture some of these events.
Current X-ray telescopes are designed to either look into “calm” black holes, but the HXMT is expected to look for “angry” black holes and neutron stars. According to the HXMT team, angry black holes are those that emit high radiation bursts. The HXMT is expected to detect about 200 gamma-ray burst events per year.
On the other hand, neutron stars are a rare sighting and astronomers do not know much about them and the physical laws that govern their behavior. The observatory will also provide additional tools for detecting the electromagnetic signals caused by the recently-discovered gravitational waves.
China paves its way into deep space
China is partnering up with the European Space Agency to use the HXMT and to launch four additional space probes before 2021. The next spacecraft will be the China-Italy Electromagnetic Monitoring Experiment Satellite, scheduled for launch sometime in August. Its objective will be to study earthquakes from space.
Next, there will be the China-France Oceanography Satellite, scheduled for launch in 2018 with the mission of surveying oceanic winds and currents to help study disaster prevention and aftermaths. The second satellite from both France and China will be launched in 2021 to study gamma rays and dark energy, which astronomers still know very little about, some even doubting its existence.
Then, in 2020, China will have its second attempt at launching a Mars probe, which will orbit the planet and later deploy a rover in a designated spot. After showcasing computer images of the rover, the Chinese government revealed that the rover would collect samples of the Martian soil and atmosphere, while also looking for any signs of water or ice.
China’s intentions of landing on Mars started in 2009 after it partnered with Russia. In 2011, the Yinghuo-1 probe launched aboard a Fobos-Grunt Russian spacecraft, but the project failed, and the probe was destroyed after lift-off. The incident drove China to conduct its own Mars mission and to evolve its space affairs.
Just recently, China managed to show it is at a vanguard in low-orbit technology, announcing the successful transmission of quantum-based information by using satellites. Researchers agree that China is at the lead in quantum communication, as the recent experiment sets the base for what would be known as a “potentially unhackable quantum internet.”
Quantum communications come from the quantum physics precept that an event’s outcome may change if there is an observer present, even if the initial conditions are the same. In the field of communications, this would mean that anyone with unauthorized access to a piece of data will leave an imprint on it just by observing it, even if there is no interaction. Einstein called this phenomenon “spooky action at a distance.”
According to experts, the key in an efficient quantum communication is to know that the components are receiving the message without measuring them. In this case, photons comprise the message.
“You can shake the package—but that’s difficult to do if what you’re receiving is just photons. You want to make sure you’ve received them but you don’t want to absorb them. In principle it’s possible—no question—but it’s very hard to do.”