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February 21, 2024

China launches advanced X-ray space telescope to probe the mysteries of black holes and neutron stars

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Jan 10, 2024

China has successfully launched its most advanced X-ray space telescope yet, the Einstein Probe, on a mission to study some of the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe like black holes and neutron stars.

Lotus-shaped satellite heads to orbit

The 640-kilogram satellite shaped like an opening lotus flower lifted off at 3:51 pm local time on January 9th aboard a Long March-2C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern Sichuan Province [1]. After a 10-minute flight, the Einstein Probe separated from the rocket and entered its intended orbit.

“The solar panels and the antenna have now been unfolded and the satellite is in good condition, currently traveling in its orbit,” the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced [2].

The Einstein Probe’s unique shape was chosen for technical and symbolic reasons. Its three petal-shaped solar panels open outwards like a blooming lotus flower to maximize light collection [3]. The lotus shape also reflects traditional Chinese culture and is meant to signify the satellite peacefully floating through the darkness of space.

Cutting-edge lobster eye optics to observe X-ray universe

The heart of the Einstein Probe is its powerful Wide Field X-ray Telescope (WXT), the first of its kind to use advanced “lobster eye” optics [4]. Based on the structure of a lobster’s eyes, these optics allow the detection of cosmic X-rays over very large areas of the sky.

The WXT instrument gives the Einstein Probe a field of view around 100 times greater than previous X-ray telescopes, allowing it to scan the heavens much faster [5]. By repeatedly observing certain areas, it can catch fleeting explosive events like supernovas and black hole outbursts that would otherwise be missed.

Over the course of its 4-year mission, the Einstein Probe is expected to discover over 10,000 previously unknown X-ray sources, providing an unprecedented wealth of data to better understand phenomena like black holes, neutron stars, gamma-ray bursts and dark energy [6].

Instrument Field of View Energy Range
Wide Field X-ray Telescope ~4.5 steradians 0.5 – 4 keV
Follow-up X-ray Telescope 1 square degree 0.5 – 10 keV
Gamma-Ray Burst Polarimeter ~2 steradians 50 – 500 keV

Table 1. Main instruments aboard China’s Einstein Probe and their observational capabilities

Collaborating with European counterparts

The Einstein Probe mission will collaborate with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Euclid and Athena satellites once they launch later in the 2020s. Euclid and Athena have complementary measurement capabilities to better understand dark energy and map black holes respectively [7].

“The Einstein Probe handles wide surveys, while Athena performs deep field observations,” explained ESA director of science Günther Hasinger. “The two make for an excellent combination.” [8]

Future steps

Now that launch and early operations have been successfully completed, the Einstein Probe will soon begin testing and calibrating its instrumentation [9].

Over the coming weeks and months, CNSA engineers will thoroughly evaluate the performance of the satellite’s systems before starting its all-sky survey. Extensive amounts of data and catalogues are expected to come out of the mission, which will be made available to astronomers worldwide for analysis.

With the launch of the Einstein Probe, China continues advancing its space science capabilities and cementing its position as a leading space power. Its next major X-ray astronomy mission called HERD will launch later this decade with over 50 times the sensitivity to make even more detailed observations [10].

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To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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