China launches 1st X-ray Space Telescope : Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope


On Thursday morning, China launched a cutting-edge space telescope, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, HXMT, jointly developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the China Academy of Space Technology, blasted off at 11 am atop a Long March 4B carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China.

The satellite is the nation’s first space-based X-ray observatory. With a weight of nearly 2.5 metric tons, the HXMT will be in operation for at least four years in a low-Earth orbit at an altitude of about 550 kilometers, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, which oversees China’s space programs.

China's space programs
Image courtesy: The Financial Express

There are three main payloads onboard HXMT, the high energy X-ray telescope (20-250 keV, 5100 cm²), the medium energy X-ray telescope (5-30 keV, 952 cm²), and the low energy X-ray telescope (1-15 keV, 384 cm²). All these three telescopes are collimated instruments.

Chen Yong, chief designer of the LE, said X-rays of lower energy usually have more photons, so a telescope based on a focusing technique is not suitable for observing very bright objects emitting soft X-rays, as too many photons at a time will result in over-exposure.

The project, a joint collaboration of the Ministry  Science and Technology of China, Chinese Academy of  Sciences and  Tsinghua University, has been under development  since 2000.

Zhao Jian, a space program official at the administration, said the HXMT will help scientists study the activities of black holes and neutron stars as well as X-ray radiation.

Chen Yong, chief designer of the LE, said X-rays of lower energy
Image courtesy: The Express Tribune

The satellite will also enable engineers to explore ways of using pulsars as benchmarks for a new-generation space navigation technology that they are developing for spacecraft, according to Zhao.

Beijing sees its multi-billion-dollar space programme as a symbol of its rise and of the Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.

In April, China’s first cargo spacecraft successfully docked with an orbiting space lab – a key development toward China’s goal of having its own crewed space station by 2022.

China has launched three science satellites:the Dark Matter Particle Explorer Satellite, Shijian 10 microgravity experiment satellite and Micius quantum experiment satellite.

China plans to launch at least four science spacecraft in the near future ,the China-Italy Electromagnetic Monitoring Experiment Satellite, China-France Oceanography Satellite and China-France Space Variable Objects Monitor as well as the country’s first Mars probe, according to Zhao Jian, a space program official at the administration.

The official added that his administration will continue to push forward a number of space-based scientific programs, including the Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer, Water Cycle Observation Satellite and the Einstein Probe as well as the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere-Thermosphere Coupling Small Satellite Constellation.

According to Zhang Shuangnan, HXMT lead scientist, the satellite’s developers found that a set of HXMT high-energy detectors, originally designed to shield background noises caused by unwanted particles, could be adjusted to observe gamma-ray bursts.

Last month, China opened a “Lunar Palace” laboratory on Earth to simulate a moon-like environment and house students for up to 200 days as the country prepares for its long-term goal of sending humans to the natural satellite.


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