China’s New SpaceLab to Probe Gamma Ray Bursts –“A Potential Mass-Extinction Event If One Occurs in Our Milky Way Galaxy”




One phenomenon capable of dealing a death blow to life on Earth is the Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) –the most powerful explosions in the universe, with a typical GRB releasing penetrating electromagnetic radiation with much energy in a few seconds as the Sun over the course of its 10-billion-year lifetime. GRBs were first observed by satellites designed to detect covert nuclear weapons tests in the 1960s. Thankfully, so far all have occurred in distant galaxies.

Astrophysicists theorize that GRBs could be caused by massive stars collapsing into black holes and the merging of two neutron stars. Understanding the causal nature of GRBs could help identify the potential threats within the Milky Way that could have a dire effect on Earth life and its atmosphere, leading to a mass extinction event.

Launched last month, China's Tiangong-2 mission is carrying an international science lab that includes POLAR, a gamma-ray detector involving collaboration between China, Switzerland and Poland that is expected will observe 10 GRBs every year that Tiangong-2 is in orbit, measuring the polarization of the emissions to shed light on their source.




“Polarization is essentially untouched territory so we cannot predict what we will find," says Nicolas Produit of the University of Geneva and Principal Investigator of POLAR. "We can also discover if the mechanism producing the gamma rays is Compton scattering or synchrotron radiation or something else."

"We already know that the region we defined for the South Atlantic Anomaly [an area of higher-than-usual levels of radiation due to changes in the Van Allen Belt ] was too conservative and we started to reduce it. This will give us some percent more live time," adds Produit.

POLAR was activated on September 22, following a week on standby after launch. Now the POLAR team is fine-tuning the instrument parameters, checking the performance against temperature and orbital position and other issues than could affect performance.

POLAR is one of 14 science payloads on Tiangong-2, with the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) in Beijing involved in development and integration of many of these.

The Daily Galaxy via and

Image credit: GRB image,


"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily