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New China space missions will watch for colliding black holes, solar blasts

China's ambitious human space missions get most of the headlines, but its fledgling space science program is quietly gaining strength.

Two satellites, launching in 2020, will watch for gamma rays from the violent birth of gravitational waves. INSTITUTE OF HIGH ENERGY PHYSICS, CAS


China's ambitious human space missions get most of the headlines, but its fledgling space science program is quietly gaining strength. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) last week confirmed plans to launch four new scientific satellites beginning in 2020. Coming on the heels of four successful missions, including one devoted to x-ray astronomy and another that demonstrated quantum entanglement over a record-setting 1200 kilometers, these "phase 2" projects will examine areas including solar physics and the hunt for electromagnetic signals associated with gravitational waves.

Given that China's space science program only started about 10 years ago, the lengthening track record "is impressive, but there are still not many missions given that it's a big country with a big science community," says Xin Wu, a China-born physicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland who collaborates on China's astrophysics missions. "There is pent-up demand" among Chinese space scientists, he says.

CAS broke with tradition for one of the new missions, the Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM). It fast-tracked selection and development to take advantage of a new scientific opportunity, which Xiong Shaolin, an astrophysicist at CAS's Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, and his colleagues identified a month after the U.S. Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announced its historic detection of gravitational waves in February 2016. They proposed putting two satellites into orbit on opposite sides of Earth that together could watch the entire sky for gamma rays emanating from the events that generate gravitational waves. Funding for technical studies arrived a few months later, and the mission has jumped to the front of the launch queue, with a date of 2020. "When you have this kind of opportunity you can't handle it like a normal mission, with selection and review taking 10 or 20 years," Xiong says.

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