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2021-10-14 11:27:18

The Chinese space program is going beyond the moon and Mars — it’s now eyeing the sun.

China launched the country’s first satellite to the sun Thursday evening, which scientists say will allow them to gather more information on the star at the center of our solar system, which is about to enter its peak active phase in an 11-year cycle.

The Chinese Hα Solar Explorer, or CHASE, was deployed from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in the northern Shanxi province.

“All life on Earth relies on the sun,” Ding Mingde, the lead scientist of the project at Nanjing University, told Sixth Tone. “The Earth’s atmosphere, while protecting us from solar radiation, blocks a lot of information about the sun. So we want to go to space to take a better look.”

Unlike other famous solar satellites, such as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018, CHASE will not fly by the sun but stay in orbit some 500 kilometers above the Earth instead, according to Ding. He said the satellite, called Xihe-1 in Chinese after the mythical solar goddess, is a “small but first step” in the attempt to eventually reach the sun.

“China now has a lot of satellites in space, and we have astronauts that will live on our space station,” Ding said, referring to the country’s under-construction infrastructure. “They could be impacted by solar flares.”

Solar flares are intense explosions on the sun that shoot out high-energy particles, which can be especially damaging to spacecraft not shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere. The radiation from strong bursts can even disrupt facilities such as electrical grids on Earth, Ding added.

During its designed lifetime of three years, CHASE will focus on scanning the sun looking for sunspots, where solar flares are most commonly observed. Data from the satellite will allow scientists to study the speed, temperature, and shape of these radiation bursts and predict the so-called space weather.

In addition to studying the sun, the Chinese solar probe team also hopes to gather more information about stars in general. The global astronomy community has been searching for potential planets with similar characteristics to Earth in the universe’s other solar systems, hoping that these planets may harbor extraterrestrial life.

“If we can understand the sun better, maybe we can find a solar system with a sun-like star and an Earth-like planet,” Ding said, adding that the team is expecting to receive CHASE’s first pictures of the sun in two weeks.

CHASE is part of China’s multi-billion dollar space missions to have recently taken off. Last month, astronauts from the country’s first crewed space mission in five years returned from a space station-building mission after three months, while its Mars rover, Zhurong, recently marked its 100th day on the red planet.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: China National Space Administration)