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China launches new astronomical satellite developed in cooperation with France

By ZHAO LEI | | Updated: 2024-06-22 15:03
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A Long March-2C rocket carrying an astronomical satellite, the Space-based Multi-band Variable Object Monitor (SVOM), blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan province on June 22, 2024. [Photo/Xinhua]

A cutting-edge astronomical spacecraft jointly developed by China and France was launched into its preset orbit on Saturday afternoon to capture and observe the most distant explosions of stars — gamma-ray bursts, according to the China National Space Administration.

The spacecraft, called the Space Variable Objects Monitor, or SVOM, is a combination of small telescopes. It was placed in a low-Earth orbit by a Chinese Long March 2C carrier rocket, launching at 3 pm from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, the administration said in a news release.

The 930-kilogram spacecraft was constructed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Innovation Academy for Microsatellites in Shanghai. It carries four scientific payloads: the ECLAIRs coded mask camera and the Microchannel X-ray Telescope made by French scientists, and the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor and the Visible Telescope built by the Chinese team.

It is now the best spacecraft ever built for multi-band comprehensive observation of gamma-ray bursts, and is expected to play an important role in space-based astronomical explorations, according to CNSA.

According to astronomers, gamma-ray bursts are immensely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies, being the brightest and most extreme explosive events in the entire universe. They are the most energetic and luminous electromagnetic events since the Big Bang.

Mankind's first knowledge of gamma-ray bursts came from the serendipitous detection of one such explosion on July 2, 1967, by the United States' Vela-series satellites, which were tasked with detecting gamma radiation pulses emitted by nuclear weapons tests.

In 1973, some US scientists published the first research paper about the astronomical phenomenon.

Over the past years, several spacecrafts including NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and High Energy Transient Explorer 2, and the Italian–Dutch astronomical satellite BeppoSAX have been placed into space to detect gamma-ray bursts.

Initiated in 2005, the SVOM project is the result of a long-term collaboration between the China National Space Administration and France's National Center for Space Studies. It has involved scientists and engineers from multiple institutes, including the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse and the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing.

Following its orbital deployment, scientists from both China and France will work together to control the satellite, receive scientific data and arrange follow-up observations.

The main scientific objectives of the SVOM mission include searching for and rapidly locating various gamma-ray bursts, comprehensively measuring and studying the electromagnetic radiation properties of these bursts, studying dark energy and the evolution of the universe through these bursts, and observing electromagnetic signals associated with gravitational waves.

The SVOM is the second satellite jointly developed by China and France, following the China-France Oceanography Satellite that was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China in October 2018.

That satellite has obtained a great deal of data that has been used to study ocean surface winds and waves, predict cyclones and improve scientists' understanding of climate change.

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