Dark Matter Satellite Launched by China in New Space Era

December 21, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

A rocket launching in the dead of night
Photo credit: SpaceX Photos/Flickr

“Monkey King” is the first of five missions dedicated to scientific discovery.

The Monkey King, more officially known as the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE), launched into space on December 17, marking the start of a new era in China’s space program.  From Earth’s orbit, the goal of the project is to detect dark matter — a substance that is only known by its gravitational effects but makes up 85 percent of the Universe — through the annihilation of high-energy particles and gamma-rays.

China is one of the world’s largest space powers, however it has focused primarily on human and robotic exploration and only just began to dabble into actual space science.  Monkey King will observe cosmic rays by surveying space at energies higher than existing detectors such as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) currently attached to the International Space Station.  “We don’t know if this is a better way to search for dark matter, because dark matter has not yet been found,” said Mike Capell, an AMS physicist at CERN.

SEE ALSO: For the First Time, Scientists May Detect Dark Matter in Nearby Galaxy

Back in 2013, the AMS announced it had seen hints of dark matter, but unfortunately it has detected too few high-energy particles to be certain.  Monkey King may be able to help reveal the signal or source of these “hints” since it is better equipped at measuring sharp spikes in radiation predicted by some dark-matter models.

Following the launch of Monkey King, two more missions will lift-off next year.  First is the world’s first quantum-communication satellite, which will test the phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.  Scientists will test whether photons beamed to the satellite from two ground stations can remain entangled with their counterparts on Earth — establishing a quantum connection at a record-breaking distance of 1,000 kilometers.  The eventual goal of this project is to create a quantum-communication network.

The second mission is a Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) that will observe in a unique energy band to look for sources of radiation, such as growing black holes.  It is a more sensitive energy range than detected by existing wide-field telescopes, said Luigi Piro, an astronomer at Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome.

Unfortunately, space science in China is funded in five-year-cycles, and it received around $460 million USD in the current round — making it tough for Chinese scientists to make long term plans.  “We don’t feel it is secure,” said Wu Ji, director-general of the National Space Science Centre (NSSC).  “It is better than nothing. But we are still catching up.”  Until China makes discoveries in space science, he believes “we are not a real space power.”  This limited funding will also have to cover two more missions — a satellite, Shijian-10, to conduct microgravity and life-science experiments and a space weather satellite known as Kuafu.

Although China is new to the field of space science, they are hopeful to develop and establish expertise.  Not only that, Chinese scientists would like to collaborate with the US, however a law passed in 2011 by the United States Congress prevents from NASA collaborating with China.  “The severed ties hurts the United States more than China.” said Wu.  The European Space Agency is already collaborating with the Chinese on a small near-Earth space-weather observatory, called the Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE).

One can only imagine the discoveries these new missions could make.

If you enjoyed this article, read this one next: Is Earth Surrounded by “Hairy” Dark Matter?

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