China launches satellite to join the hunt for dark matter

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Baku, December 17, AZERTAC

China's space science efforts got a boost today with the launch of the first of four planned scientific missions. The Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) rode into space on a Long March 2D rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, about 1600 kilometers west of Beijing, at about 8:12 a.m. local time.

"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," Spergel says. The launch also marks China’s new commitment to scientific space missions. "DAMPE is the first Chinese space mission for astronomy and astrophysics," says Yizhong Fan, an astrophysicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing who is one of the mission scientists.

Dark matter is believed to make up most of the matter in the universe. But it has never been detected directly; its existence is inferred from observed gravitational effects on visible matter and the structure of the universe. DAMPE is designed to observe the incoming direction, energy, and electric charge of extremely high-energy photons and electrons that result when dark matter candidate particles called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) annihilate. The satellite's payload is made up of a stack of thin criss-crossed strip detectors tuned to catch signals created by photons and electrons as well as gamma rays and cosmic rays.

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