Chinese Long March 11 rocket launches satellites to hunt gravitational waves

China has successfully launched a pair of satellites into space to learn more about gravitational waves, or echoes in space-time from huge mergers or cosmic events.

The Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM) mission launched at 3:14 p.m. EST on Dec. 9 (2014 GMT Wednesday or 4:14 a.m. local time Thursday, Dec. 10) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern Sichuan province.

The 330-pound (150-kg) twin satellites each entered their planned orbit of roughly 375 miles (600 kilometers) in altitude at opposite sides of the Earth, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. and Science magazine.

"The launch of these scientific satellites will enable our country to make important breakthroughs in exploring the extreme universe, solar activities and the relationship between the sun and the Earth," Wang Chi, head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' National Space Science Center, said in an interview with the state-run news channel CCTV, according to a translation. 

A Long March-11 carrier rocket carrying two satellites for the detection of gravitational waves blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on December 10, 2020 in Xichang, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province of China.

China has successfully launched a pair of satellites into space to learn more about gravitational waves, or echoes in space-time from huge mergers or cosmic events. (Image credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

From their orbits, the satellites will monitor the entire sky for events that generate gravitational waves, which could include cosmic confluences such as neutron stars merging or black holes coming together, Science said. 

The Chinese satellites have an advantage over existing observatories searching for gamma rays, or bursts of energy from these collisions, because their view is not obscured, the magazine added. By contrast, NASA's Swift Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope both have only partial views of the sky.

The new mission launched on a Long March 11 rocket developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., and the launch was the 355th mission of the Long March series, Chinese state sources said.

Last week, China also successfully docked the ascent module of its Chang'e-5 moon-landing spacecraft with an orbiter spacecraft, as part of larger mission to return samples from the lunar surface. The moon mission was performed by the China National Space Administration, while the new gravitational waves mission is under the science-focused National Space Science Center.

The Chang'e 5 sample-return spacecraft is now headed back to Earth for a landing later this week.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: