Svom: Franco-Chinese space cooperation to study gamma-ray bursts in the early universe

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The Svom astrophysics mission will take off this Saturday, June 22 at 9 a.m. (Paris time) from the Xichang base, in the Sichuan province in China. The satellite will be launched by a Long March 2C rocket. Designed to operate for a minimum of three years, the Svom space observatory was designed to carry out a major quest: to study gamma-ray bursts, the most intense astronomical phenomena in the universe.

Explore the young world

Gamma-ray bursts are immense emissions of very energetic photons (particles of light). They can have several origins: either they are emitted by the explosion of a very massive star, with a mass greater than 20 times that of our sun, or by the fusion of compact objects, such as neutron stars and the black holes.

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Regardless of the source that emitted them, gamma-ray bursts come from violent events that occurred a long, long time ago. Thus, the oldest observed were born when our universe was not even a billion years old – cosmology today gives it an age of 13.8 billion years. By studying these gamma-ray bursts, the Svom observatory promises to examine the cosmos as it was in its early days.

View of the ECLAIRs telescope flight model

View of the ECLAIRs telescope flight model

© CNES/APC/CEA

Coordinate instruments in space and on the ground

Co-developed by the French (Cnes) and Chinese (CNSA) space agencies, Svom will be able to carry out its mission thanks to four on-board instruments. ECLAIRs, developed by Cnes, is an X-ray and gamma telescope with a large field of view, which should detect the first signs of a gamma-ray burst. If this is the case, the telescope will quickly reorient itself towards the detection zone and hand over to instruments with a narrower field of view. Among them, MXT, also designed by Cnes, is a low-energy X-ray telescope. Alongside it will be the two Chinese-designed telescopes GRM, which will observe bursts in the high energy range, and VLT which will focus on the visible spectrum and near infrared.

But that's not all… As soon as Svom detects the first traces of a gamma-ray burst, it will transmit the location of the event to large telescopes on the ground. These terrestrial instruments can then be mobilized to in turn observe the gamma-ray burst and thus supplement the valuable data collected by Svom.

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