China’s Dark Matter probe begins operation

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China’s probe into space, seeking answers to questions raised about dark matter has returned its first data to ground stations.

The spacecraft, which is called Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) was blasted off into space on 17 December from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province.

It carried on it a Long March 2D booster and is placed in a 500km-altitude orbit.

Signals and data received shortly after its launch show that the spacecraft is working as expected and that the data is good quality, China’s Xinhua News Agency said.

Initial assessments also indicate everything is working correctly and the spacecraft is now ready to begin a three-year mission.

Dark Matter is widely thought to account for most of the mass in the universe, outweighing atoms by about six times. It gives rise to the otherwise unaccountably fast rotation rates of most galaxies in the universe.

Scientists however have yet to detect a single particle of the stuff. They are unsure of its exact nature but calculations suggest that it will be incredibly unreactive and so difficult to detect.

This is where DAMPE, also known as Wukong- named after the monkey king in the Chinese fairytale Journey to the West, comes in handy.

The spacecraft will look for gamma rays, electrons and high-energy cosmic rays, all of which could hold clues about the nature of dark matter.

A similar detector, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, is attached to the International Space Station.

“This is an exciting mission,” says theoretical astrophysicist David Spergel of Princeton University.

If dark matter annihilates, as some theories predict, “DAMPE has an opportunity to detect dark matter annihilation products,” he says.

“DAMPE is the first Chinese space mission for astronomy and astrophysics,” says Yizhong Fan, an astrophysicist at the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS’s) Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing who is one of the mission scientists.

DAMPE was built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare.

The spacecraft’s launch marks China’s new commitment to scientific space missions.

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