The 2.76-ton satellite was carried on the back of a Long March-4B rocket launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. It will orbit about 340 miles above the Earth's surface, with an expected life span of four years.
The satellite is named the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), informally referred to as "Insight." It is equipped with three x-ray telescopes, making it the largest and most powerful Hard X-ray satellite ever launched, according to Xinhua.
"Hard" x-rays are x-rays in a high energy band, and emit from sources like magnetic fields, the interiors of pulsars (small stars with extremely powerful magnetic charges) and the formation of black holes.
"We are looking forward to discovering new activities of black holes and studying the state of neutron stars under extreme gravity and density conditions, and physical laws under extreme magnetic fields," lead scientist Zhang Shuangnan told Xinhua. "These studies are expected to bring new breakthroughs in physics."
Insight has been in development for 17 years, with the joint project between Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Tsinghua University (China's top engineering school) beginning in 2000. It was originally slated for a 2010 release, but was delayed until Wednesday morning.
The ambitious project is part of China's push to catch up to spaceflight leaders like Russia and the United States. X-ray telescopes are a significant accomplishment because they must be space-based, as Earth's atmosphere acts as a shell against x-ray astronomy.
"Insight is expected to push forward the development of space astronomy and improve space X-ray detection technology in China," Xinhua reported.
"It's very meaningful that they've launched their first astronomical satellite and this will pave the way for others," Andrew Fabian, theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, told Science Mag. He says that the satellite will be useful in catching "transient x-rays," which flare up and then quickly fade away for poorly understood reasons.