Dark Matter Particle Explorer. Credit: unige.ch

Chinese scientists are well on track to join the ongoing, worldwide hunt for the (still) elusive dark matter. Based on our most up-to-date data, dark matter accounts for just over 25% of the universe. Dark energy, on the other hand, makes up about about 68%, while normal matter (everything that we've ever seen—planets, stars, nebulae etc.) adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Unfortunately, we've yet to actually find dark matter or dark energy. Ultimately, the search for dark matter, the stuff that cannot be seen with telescopes, continues long after Dutch astronomer Jan Oort postulated the presence of dark matter particles in 1932.

Now, China is gearing up to make its contribution to the virtual army of scientific probes already hunting for this unseen portion of our universe.

Engineers from the Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites (SECM) announced on May 29 that the country’s Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) will be launched into space by the end of this year. DAMPE will detect electrons and photons with unprecedented energy resolution in order to identify possible dark matter signatures. It will have the widest observation spectrum and highest energy resolution of any dark matter probe in the world.

“DAMPE satellite will observe the direction, energy and electric charge of high-energy particles in space in search of dark matter,” said Chang Jin, chief scientist of the project, at a press briefing held by SECM.

The 1,900 kg spacecraft will be inserted into a sun-synchronous orbit at the altitude of 500 km to perform observations for up to 3 years.

The probe will be equipped in a Plastic Scintillator strip Detector (PSD) that serves as anti-coincidence detector and charge detector, a Silicon Tungsten tracker-converter (STK) that measures the direction of incident particle, an imaging calorimeter that measures the energy with high energy resolution, and a Neutron Detector (NUD) that gives types of high energy particle shower.

A rendering of how filaments of dark matter might encase galaxies (Credit: AMNH)

According to SECM, all key components of the spacecraft have been tested and are functioning well. DAMPE is one of the five Chinese space science missions within the framework of the Strategic Pioneer Program on Space Science of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS).

Having in mind the long-lasting and, thus far, disappointing search for dark matter, this is a tough task that the Chinese probe has set to undertake. To this day, we only know about dark matter’s existence because of gravitational effects. Scientists admit that something we have yet to detect directly is giving galaxies extra mass, some invisible matter, generating the extra gravity they need to stay intact. The question: “Will we ever find dark matter?” is still open. Perhaps this little probe can give us an answer.

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