China launches Einstein probe to scan the universe for X-ray bursts

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The Long March-2C rocket, carrying the Einstein Probe satellite, lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang, southwest China's Sichuan Province, on January 9, 2024.

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A probe designed to scan the sky for bursts of X-rays that could help shed light on mysterious phenomena linked to black holes and merging stars launched this week.

The Einstein probe, named after the famous German-born theoretical physicist, blasted off aboard one of China's Long March 2C rockets on Tuesday, according to China's official Xinhua news agency. Press release from the European Space Agency.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which operates the country's Long March rockets, confirmed the successful launch Social media.

The spacecraft was built as a collaborative effort involving the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and the European Space Agency.

Detecting signs of X-ray bursts could help scientists develop a better fundamental understanding of high-energy processes in space, such as supernova explosions, neutron star collisions, and black holes spewing matter after devouring magnetic fields, according to the European Space Agency.

Searching for X-ray bursts

The Einstein Probe uses two instruments to detect the bursts of X-ray light that emit these phenomena: the Wide-Field X-ray Telescope (WXT) and the Follow-up X-ray Telescope (FXT).

WXT is designed to perform large-scale scans of the sky in search of X-ray beams. The instrument is modeled after lobster eyes, which contain thousands of square pores that direct light to a circular center. Using a similar design on the telescope allows WXT to take images ten of the entire sky in one shot, according to the European Space Agency.

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After the WXT device detects the X-rays, the more sensitive FXT device is designed to quickly collect more in-depth information.

“Thanks to WXT's unique wide view, we will be able to capture X-ray light from collisions between neutron stars and find out the cause of some of the gravitational waves we detect on Earth,” said Eric Kolkers, ESA's Einstein Probe. The project scientist, in a statement. “Often, when these elusive space-time ripples are recorded, we cannot pinpoint their source. By instantly detecting the X-ray burst, we will pinpoint the origin of many gravitational wave events.”

The Einstein Probe is expected to operate in Earth's orbit at an altitude of about 600 kilometers (370 miles) above the Earth's surface. The spacecraft is expected to be able to monitor the entire night sky for X-rays in just three Earth orbits, or roughly every four and a half hours.

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