China’s 1st Space Observatory Powers Up X-Ray Detectors That Will Scan the Milky Way to Map Black Holes and Neutron Stars (WATCH Video)



The main detectors on China's first space observatory, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), have been powered up as the satellite enters a period of on-orbit testing to collect highly energetic x-rays emitted by black holes, neutron stars and other phenomena across a range of 1-250 kiloelectron volts (keV). Zhang Shuangnan, principal investigator of the project with China's Institute of High Energy Physics, says that HXMT will survey the Galactic plane to create a high precision x-ray map of the sky.

The probe's wide range of energy coverage means it may pick up previously undiscovered black holes in the Milky Way, and perhaps even new types of objects. Black holes and neutron stars are the main sources of cosmic X-rays, but these can only be seen from space, as the Earth's atmosphere absorbs X-rays.

HXMT, also known as (Huiyan) or 'Insight', was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center atop a Long March 4B rocket at 11:00 on June 15, 2017, and is currently orbiting between 538 and 547 km above the Earth, inclined by 43 degrees, where it is expected to operate for at least four years.




The probe's three sets of main detectors have now been booted, according to the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP). The low-energy detectors (LE) and mid-range detectors (ME) were switched on on June 19, with the high-energy detector (HE) following on June 21.

HXMT joins a number of X-ray observatories in orbit, including NASA's Chandra and NuSTAR, and XMM-Newton, launched by the European Space Agency and will also look for the electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves, which were first detected by LIGO in 2015, and gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) up to energies of 3,000 keV.

Another potential use of the satellite is to explore the mechanisms of neutron star and pulsar timing, following on from the cutting edge XPNAV-1 satellite launched last autumn, potentially working in concert with the Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) Radio Telescope –the world's largest–in Guizhou Province.

HXMT was the fourth and final launch of a first batch of space science missions developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), follows the DAMPE dark matter probe, the Shijian-10 retrievable microgravity experiment satellite, and the pioneering QUESS quantum science satellite.

The Daily Galaxy via Chinese Academy of Sciences  and GB Times 

Image credit top of page: This NASA illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star, disrupted as it was being devoured by a supermassive black hole. The feeding black hole is surrounded by a ring of dust. This dust was previously illuminated by flares of high-energy radiation from the feeding black hole, and is now shown re-radiating some of that energy as heat in the infrared part of the spectrum.

When a star passes within a certain distance of a black hole — close enough to be swallowed up — the stellar material gets stretched and compressed as it is pulled in. A black hole's destruction of a star, called "stellar tidal disruption," releases an enormous amount of energy, brightening the surroundings in an event called a flare. In recent years, a few dozen such flares have been discovered, but they are not well understood.



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