Svom: A collaborative satellite between France and China was launched this weekend

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The optics of the XT telescope of the SVOM satellite

The optics of the XT telescope of the SVOM satellite

© T.De Prada/CNES

Saturday at 3 p.m., a Longue-Marche 2-C rocket took off from the Xichang space base (southwest of China). The latter carries within it the SVOM satellite (for Space-based multi-band astronomical Variable Objects Monitor), a rare testimony to Sino-Western collaboration in the conquest of space. Its objective is simple: to detect and locate gamma-ray bursts, extremely distant cosmic phenomena, the discovery of which could allow us to obtain information on the history of the Universe.

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What is a gamma burst?

The satellite launched this weekend weighs 930 kilos and contains four instruments in total (two Chinese, two French). The main objective of the latter is to observe gamma-ray bursts, but what is it actually about? To put it simply, it is a phenomenon taking place after the explosion of giant stars (20 times more massive than the sun, for example) or the merger of compact stars. These explosions are considered the most powerful in the Universe, and can release energy comparable to more than a billion billion suns.

Placed in orbit at an altitude of 625 kilometers, the satellite must then detect these bursts, then send an alert to a dedicated team available 24 hours a day. The main difficulty of the mission is the following: gamma bursts are very brief phenomena , and the collection of information must be rapid to be effective. As soon as the team receives the alert, it must then trigger an array of ground telescopes which will align towards the axis of the source of the burst to attempt a more in-depth observation.

Astrophysicist from the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, gamma burst expert Frédéric Daigne was able to speak with AFP, for whom he compares this observation to traveling through time. “observing them is a bit like going back in time, because their light takes a long time to reach us on Earth, several billion years for the most distant ones.” he first affirms, before confirming the interest of such research: “we are also interested in gamma-ray bursts for their own sake, because they are extreme cosmic explosions that allow us to better understand the death of certain stars“. And ultimately, discover more about the history of the Universe. This Franco-Chinese collaboration in the conquest of space is rare enough to be noted, and applauded by the CEO of CNES (the National Center for Space Studies) , Philippe Baptiste: “It’s a great success! We managed to work well with our Chinese colleagues“.

Even if it means launching new future collaborations? We still need to find topics of potential mutual interest. And, obviously, as Philippe Baptiste points out, “the political context must be suitable“.

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