China and France launch satellite to better understand the universe

A French-Chinese satellite blasted off Saturday on a hunt for the mightiest explosions in the universe, in a notable example of cooperation between a Western power and the Asian giant.

Developed by engineers from both countries, the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) will seek out gamma-ray bursts, the light from which has travelled billions of light years to reach Earth.

The 930-kilogram satellite carrying four instruments -- two French, two Chinese -- took off around 3:00 pm (0700 GMT) aboard a Chinese Long March 2-C rocket from a space base in Xichang, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, AFP journalists witnessed.

Gamma-ray bursts generally occur after the explosion of huge stars -- those more than 20 times as big as the sun -- or the fusion of compact stars.

The extremely bright cosmic beams can give off a blast of energy equivalent to over a billion billion suns.

Observing them is like "looking back in time, as the light from these objects takes a long time to reach us", Ore Gottlieb, an astrophysicist at the Flatiron Institute's Center for Astrophysics in New York, told AFP.

'Several mysteries'

The rays carry traces of the gas clouds and galaxies they pass through on their journey through space -- valuable data for better understanding the history and evolution of the universe.

The most distant bursts identified to date were produced just 630 million years after the Big Bang -- when the universe was in its infancy.


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