A cooperation between Chinese and French space intelligence agencies is about to launch a probe to explore gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful cosmic events known to mankind. It is the future SVOM telescope (Space-based multiband astronomical variable objects monitor).

A decade of collaboration. The French instruments destined for the SVOM mission are already awaiting their transfer to China and subsequent assembly in the future space observatory. This marks an important step in a collaboration that began in 2014 between the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) French.

These are two of the instruments that the probe will carry to analyze gamma-ray bursts (GRB), the Microchannel X-ray Telescope (MXT) and the ECLAIRs telescope. Together, the two instruments will detect, locate and observe bursts of gamma rays at various frequencies across the spectrum.

The probe is completed with the GRM instrument, to measure the spectrum of the most energetic bursts, and a telescope at the visible frequency, VT, to observe the trail left by the gamma-ray bursts in the visible spectrum. These two instruments are being developed by Chinese teams.


Almost a ton. China will also be in charge of putting the device into orbit. A Long March 2C rocket will carry the 930 kg satellite to its new destination in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of around 625 km.

The vehicle will depart from the Xichang base later this year if plans go as planned. Thereafter, a three-year mission will begin, which may be extended for another two years if the appropriate conditions are met.

In search of the gusts. Gamma-ray bursts or GRBs are the most energetic events we have been able to observe in the universe. We believe that these explosions are a kind of “birth cry” for black holes.

The GRBs would be remnants of a type of supernova known as a hypernova, which would occur at the end of the life of stars with a mass between five and ten times that of the Sun. It is also believed that only stars with particularly high rotational speeds are capable of triggering these phenomena at the end of their days.

Due to their sudden and fleeting nature, these bursts are difficult to analyze, but over the past 30 years we have managed to analyze several. We observed an important example a few months ago, when we detected an explosion from an event that occurred “only” 1,900 million years ago.

Infrequent wake up.

The news also highlights how unusual it is to see collaborations between Chinese and European space agencies. The reason is the veto that the US Congress imposed on any aerospace collaboration with the Asian giant. This veto affects third countries, as it prevents them from embarking on projects with Chinese agencies when NASA is involved.

Despite this, this is not the only example of cooperation between China and different European countries. The X-Ray Observatory einstein probe (PE) also counts on the collaboration of the United Kingdom and France, while the POLAR observatory (Gamma Ray Burst Polarimeter), will have French, Polish and Swiss collaboration.

Image | SVOM collaboration