China, France launch satellite to better understand universe

Published June 23, 2024
A ROCKET carrying a satellite jointly developed by China and France, lifts off from a space base at Xichang, in China’s south-western Sichuan province, on Saturday.—AFP
A ROCKET carrying a satellite jointly developed by China and France, lifts off from a space base at Xichang, in China’s south-western Sichuan province, on Saturday.—AFP

XICHANG: A French-Chinese satellite blasted off on Saturday on a hunt for the mightiest explosions in the universe, in a notable example of cooperation between a Western power and the Asian giant.

Developed by engineers from both countries, the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) will seek out gamma-ray bursts, the light from which has travelled billions of light years to reach Earth.

The 930-kilogram satellite carrying four instruments — two French, two Chinese — took off around 3:00pm local time aboard a Chinese Long March 2-C rocket from a space base in Xichang, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, journalists witnessed.

Gamma-ray bursts generally occur after the explosion of huge stars — those more than 20 times as big as the sun — or the fusion of compact stars. The extremely bright cosmic beams can give off a blast of energy equivalent to over a billion billion suns.

Observing them is like “looking back in time, as the light from these objects takes a long time to reach us”, Ore Gottlieb, an astrophysicist at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Astrophysics in New York, said.

The rays carry traces of the gas clouds and galaxies they pass through on their journey through space — valuable data for better understanding the history and evolution of the universe.

“SVOM has the potential to unravel several mysteries in the field of (gamma-ray bursts), including detecting the most distant GRBs in the universe, which correspond to the earliest GRBs,” Gottlieb said.

The most distant bursts identified to date were produced just 630 million years after the Big Bang — when the universe was in its infancy.

“We are […] interested in gamma-ray bursts for their own sake, because they are very extreme cosmic explosions which allow us to better understand the death of certain stars,” said Frederic Daigne, an astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2024

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