China on Thursday launched a space telescope, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), or Insight, to observe black holes, neutron stars, gamma ray bursts and other celestial phenomena.
The result of the wisdom and painstaking efforts of several generations of Chinese scientists, the telescope is expected to push forward the development of space astronomy in China. Scientists from both home and abroad have high expectations of it.
"Before its launch, we could only use second-hand observation data from foreign satellites. It was very hard for Chinese astronomers to make important findings without our own instruments," said Xiong Shaolin, a scientist at the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
"The only way to make original achievements is to construct our own observation instruments," Xiong said.
"Now Chinese scientists have created this space telescope with its many unique advantages, and it's quite possible we will discover new, strange and unexpected phenomena in universe."
Gou Lijun, a researcher at the National Astronomical Observatories of the CAS, said China missed opportunities for many discoveries as approval of Insight and its development and launch was postponed many times.
However, it is the first step for China in the field of X-ray astronomy and learning how to develop and operate a space telescope, Gou said.
"Although many advanced X-ray astronomical satellites from other countries are already in orbit, HXMT could still make important discoveries," said Gou. "The universe is full of surprises."
Zhang Shuangnan, lead scientist of HXMT, said the launch puts China in the vanguard of international X-ray astronomy with a dozen other X-ray satellites in orbit. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for China. HXMT will both compete and collaborate with other X-ray satellites.
The research and development of China's first X-ray astronomical satellite laid a good foundation for the development of future X-ray astronomical instruments, Zhang said.
Li Tipei, the CAS academician who first proposed the satellite in the early 1990s, said Chinese scientists could have made many great scientific discoveries if it had been launched within 10 years of first being mooted. Even so, he is confident the satellite can make new findings.
"Our satellite has advantages in detecting transient phenomena and X-ray explosions of celestial bodies. And its functions have expanded, as its developers added more detectors so it can cover a broader range of energy," Li said.
Gu Yidong, a CAS academician, said China still lags behind advanced levels in space science. "We should have a sense of urgency. We will make efforts to upgrade China's space science to advanced levels within two decades."
Filippo Frontera, a professor of the University of Ferrara and an associate scientist of Italy's National Institute of Astrophysics in Bologna, said the satellite will be a useful vehicle for the advancement of the high-energy astrophysics in China.
"The Chinese space program is very impressive. I expect that, with this program, China can become a leader in space science with great scientific and economic returns. Indeed, foreseen space missions require the development of new high-level technologies that can be later exploited in different fields, like medical physics, information technology, and so on," said Frontera.
Arvind Parmar, head of the Scientific Support Office in the Science Directorate of European Space Agency (ESA), said HXMT will study X-rays from objects such as black holes, neutron stars and the remains of exploded stars. These are exciting topics for scientists all over the world. HMXT will join X-rays satellites already in operation. Each mission has its own strengths.
He said the ESA has a long history of collaborating with China on scientific missions. Once HXMT is launched and starts making observations, there is great potential for joint investigations with some ESA missions. Many scientific investigations benefit from data from more than one satellite.
"I am really impressed with how China is developing its scientific space program. The recent launches of the Dark Matter Particle Explorer and the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale missions highlight Chinese capabilities and commitment to science as does the range of missions under study for future launch opportunities," said Parmar.
Andrea Santangelo, a scientist at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics of Germany's University of Tubingen, said HXMT will have profound implications for the development of high-energy astrophysics in China. Being a national program with an international flavor, it will put China among the lead nations in X-ray astrophysics and space science.
As has happened for other nations, the know-how acquired during its development and the knowledge that will emerge from the analysis of the data will allow future generations of scientists to play a key role in understanding the universe at high energy, said Santangelo.
"HXMT will focus on the bright sources emitting X-rays. In particular, the mission capability of studying a broad band of energies will allow us to study the behavior of very exotic objects in the universe. Thanks to the broadband coverage of HXMT, we will see many aspects of the emission of objects in the X-rays. If one wants to study an elephant, one does not just look at its proboscis or its tail. We want to see and measure the proboscis, the tail and the body," Santangelo said.
Paolo Giommi, a senior scientist at the Italian Space Agency, said China's space science program foresees several satellites of increasing complexity and competitiveness. Together with the construction of large ground-based facilities, this will make China one of the major definitive producers of knowledge in space science.
Jonathan E. Grindlay, a professor at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said China is making rapid scientific progress in its space program. HXMT will be an important extension of high-energy astrophysics from space, and will complement other missions currently in operation as well as those being planned.