Alliance sets sights on minerals needed for global shift to green energy

The U.S. government’s representative to the Minerals Security Partnership, an alliance of mostly Western countries that aims to speed the development of energy mineral supply chains, said last month that a Chinese company was using “predatory” tactics to hold down the price of cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Henry Wilkins looks at what this means for Africa.

Meta risks fines over ‘pay for privacy’ model breaking EU rules

Brussels, Belgium — The EU accused Facebook owner Meta on Monday of breaching the bloc’s digital rules, paving the way for potential fines worth billions of euros.

The charges against the US tech titan follow a finding last week against Apple that marked the first time Brussels had levelled formal accusations under the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The latest case focuses on Meta’s new ad-free subscription model for Facebook and Instagram, which has sparked multiple complaints over privacy concerns.

Meta’s “pay or consent” system means users have to pay to avoid data collection, or agree to share their data with Facebook and Instagram to keep using the platforms for free.

The European Commission said it informed Meta of its “preliminary view” that the model the company launched last year “fails to comply” with the DMA.

“This binary choice forces users to consent to the combination of their personal data and fails to provide them a less personalized but equivalent version of Meta’s social networks,” the EU’s powerful antitrust regulator said in a statement.

The findings come after the commission kickstarted a probe into Meta in March under the DMA, which forces the world’s biggest tech companies to comply with EU rules designed to give European users more choice online.

Meta insisted its model “complies with the DMA.”

“We look forward to further constructive dialogue with the European Commission to bring this investigation to a close,” a Meta spokesperson said.

Meta can now reply to the findings and avoid a fine if it changes the model to address the EU’s concerns.

If the commission’s view is confirmed however, it can slap fines of up to 10 percent of Meta’s total global turnover under the DMA. This can rise to up to 20 percent for repeat offenders.

Meta’s total revenue last year stood at around $135 billion (125 billion euros).  

The EU also has the right to break up firms, but only as a last resort. 

In EU’s crosshairs

Under the DMA, the EU labels Meta and other companies, including Apple, as “gatekeepers” and prevents them forcing users in the bloc to consent to have access to a service or certain functionalities.

The commission said Meta’s model did not allow users to “freely consent” to their data being shared between Facebook and Instagram with Meta’s ads services.

“The DMA is there to give back to the users the power to decide how their data is used and ensure innovative companies can compete on equal footing with tech giants on data access,” the EU’s top tech enforcer, commissioner Thierry Breton, said.

The commission will adopt a decision on whether Meta’s model is DMA compliant or not by late March 2025.

The EU has shown it is serious about making big online companies change their ways.

The commission told Apple last week its App Store rules were hindering developers from freely pointing consumers to alternative channels for offers.

The EU is also probing Google over similar concerns on its Google Play marketplace.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies coming under the scope of the DMA. Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and TikTok owner ByteDance must also comply.

Online travel giant Booking.com will need to adhere to the rules later this year.

Privacy complaints

Meta has made billions from harvesting users’ data to serve up highly targeted ads. But it has faced an avalanche of complaints over its data processing in recent years.

The European data regulator in April has also said the ‘pay or consent’ model is at odds with the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which upholds the privacy of users’ information.

Ireland — a major hub for online tech giants operating in the 27-nation bloc — has slapped Meta with massive fines for violating the GDPR.

The latest complaint by privacy groups forced Meta last month to pause its plans to use personal data to train its artificial intelligence technology in Europe. 

Russian satellite breaks up, forces space station astronauts to shelter

WASHINGTON — A defunct Russian satellite has broken up into more than 100 pieces of debris in orbit, forcing astronauts on the International Space Station to take shelter for about an hour and adding to the mass of space junk already in orbit, U.S. space agencies said. 

There were no immediate details on what caused the breakup of the RESURS-P1 Russian Earth observation satellite, which Russia declared dead in 2022. 

U.S. Space Command, tracking the debris swarm, said there was no immediate threat to other satellites. 

The event took place about noon EDT (1600 GMT) Wednesday, Space Command said. It occurred in an orbit near the space station, prompting U.S. astronauts on board to shelter in their spacecraft for roughly an hour, NASA’s Space Station office said. 

Russian space agency Roscosmos, which operated the satellite, did not respond to a request for comment or publicly acknowledge the event on its social media channels. 

U.S. Space Command, which has a global network of space-tracking radars, said the satellite immediately created “over 100 pieces of trackable debris.” 

By Thursday afternoon, radars from U.S. space-tracking firm LeoLabs had detected at least 180 pieces, the company said.  

Large debris-generating events in orbit are rare but of increasing concern as space becomes crowded with satellite networks vital to everyday life on Earth, from broadband internet and communications to basic navigation services, as well as satellites no longer in use. 

The satellite’s breakup was at an altitude of roughly 355 km (220 miles) in low-Earth orbit, a popular region where thousands of small to large satellites operate, including SpaceX’s vast Starlink network and China’s station that houses three of its astronauts. 

“Due to the low orbit of this debris cloud, we estimate it’ll be weeks to months before the hazard has passed,” LeoLabs said in a statement to Reuters. 

The some 25,000 pieces of debris bigger than 10 cm (4 inches) in space caused by satellite explosions or collisions have raised concerns about the prospect of a Kessler effect — a phenomenon in which satellite collisions with debris can create a cascading field of more hazardous junk and exponentially increase crash risks. 

Russia sparked strong criticism from the U.S. and other Western countries in 2021 when it struck one of its defunct satellites in orbit with a ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from its Plesetsk rocket site. The blast, testing a weapon system ahead of Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, created thousands of pieces of orbital debris. 

In the roughly 88-minute window of RESURS-P1’s initial breakup, the Plesetsk site was one of many locations on Earth it passed over, but there was no immediate indication from airspace or maritime alerts that Russia had launched a missile to strike the satellite, space tracker and Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell said. 

“I find it hard to believe they would use such a big satellite as an ASAT target,” McDowell said. “But, with the Russians these days, who knows.” 

He and other analysts speculated the breakup more likely could have been caused by a problem with the satellite, such as leftover fuel onboard causing an explosion. 

What happens to old satellites?  

Dead satellites either remain in orbit until they descend into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery demise years later, or in widely preferred — but less common — circumstances, they fly to a “graveyard orbit” some 36,000 km (22,400 miles) from Earth to lower the risk of crashing into active satellites. 

Roscosmos decommissioned RESURS-P1 over onboard equipment failures in 2021, announcing the decision the following year. The satellite has since appeared to be lowering its altitude through layers of other active satellites for an eventual atmospheric reentry. 

The six U.S. astronauts currently on the space station were alerted by NASA mission control in Houston late Wednesday evening to execute “safe haven” procedures, where each crew member rushes into the spacecraft they arrived in, in case an emergency departure is required. 

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams boarded their Starliner spacecraft, the Boeing-built capsule that has been docked since June 6 in its first crewed test mission on the station. 

Three of the other U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut went into SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule that flew them to the station in March, while the sixth U.S. astronaut joined the two remaining cosmonauts in their Russian Soyuz capsule that ferried them there in September last year. 

The astronauts emerged from their spacecraft roughly an hour later and resumed their normal work on the station, NASA said. 

The prospects of satellite collisions and space warfare have added urgency to calls from space advocates and lawyers to have countries establish an international mechanism of managing space traffic, which does not currently exist.

News nonprofit sues ChatGPT maker OpenAI, Microsoft for ‘exploitative’ copyright infringement

Los Angeles — The Center for Investigative Reporting said Thursday it has sued ChatGPT maker OpenAI and its closest business partner, Microsoft, marking a new front in the news industry’s fight against unauthorized use of its content on artificial intelligence platforms.

The nonprofit, which produces Mother Jones and Reveal, said that OpenAI used its content without permission and without offering compensation, violating copyrights on the organization’s journalism. The lawsuit, filed in a New York federal court, describes OpenAI’s business as “built on the exploitation of copyrighted works” and focuses on how AI-generated summaries of articles threaten publishers.

“It’s immensely dangerous,” Monika Bauerlein, the nonprofit’s CEO, told The Associated Press. “Our existence relies on users finding our work valuable and deciding to support it.”

Bauerlein said that “when people can no longer develop that relationship with our work, when they no longer encounter Mother Jones or Reveal, then their relationship is with the AI tool.”

That, she said, could “cut the entire foundation of our existence as an independent newsroom out from under us” while also threatening the future of other news organizations.

OpenAI and Microsoft didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The lawsuit is the latest against OpenAI and Microsoft to land at Manhattan’s federal court, where the companies are already battling a series of other copyright lawsuits from The New York Times, other media outlets and bestselling authors such as John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and George R.R. Martin. The companies also face a separate case in San Francisco’s federal court brought by authors including comedian Sarah Silverman.

Some news organizations have chosen to collaborate rather than fight with OpenAI by signing deals to get compensated for sharing news content that can be used to train its AI systems. The latest to do so is Time magazine, which announced Thursday that OpenAI will get access to its “extensive archives from the last 101 years.”

OpenAI and other major AI developers don’t typically disclose their data sources but have argued that taking troves of publicly accessible online text, images and other media to train their AI systems is protected by the “fair use” doctrine of American copyright law.

CIR’s lawsuit says a dataset that OpenAI has acknowledged using to build an earlier version of its chatbot technology contained thousands of links to the website of Mother Jones, a 48-year-old print magazine that’s been publishing online since 1993. But the text used for AI training was usually missing information about a story’s author, title or copyright notice.

Last summer, more than 4,000 writers signed a letter to the CEOs of OpenAI and other tech companies accusing them of exploitative practices in building chatbots.

“It’s not a free resource for these AI companies to ingest and make money on,” Bauerlein said of news media. “They pay for office space. They pay for electricity. They pay salaries for their workers. Why would the content that they ingest be the only thing that they don’t [pay for]?”

The AP is among the news organizations that have made licensing deals over the past year with OpenAI; others include The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post publisher News Corp., The Atlantic, Axel Springer in Germany and Prisa Media in Spain, France’s Le Monde newspaper and the London-based Financial Times.

Mother Jones and CIR were both founded in the 1970s and merged earlier this year. Both are based in San Francisco, as is OpenAI.

The lawsuit from CIR, also known for its Reveal podcast and radio show, outlines the expense of producing investigative journalism and warns that losing control of copyrighted content will result in less revenue and even fewer reporters to tell important stories in “today’s paltry media landscape.”

“With fewer investigative news stories told, the cost to democracy will be enormous,” the lawsuit says.

Indonesia aims to build cutting-edge spaceport but faces obstacles

Jakarta, Indonesia — Indonesia aims to launch 19 satellites into low-Earth orbit next year, part of an ambitious plan to move the country into the forefront of the world’s growing space industry and reduce its reliance on other countries for its satellite data.

The broader program, known as the 2045 space map, is set to begin next year. Officials hope to boost Indonesia’s economy and drive foreign direct investment by leveraging its unique geography as a near-equatorial, fuel-efficient launch point for space travel and research.

While the satellite launches would support key economic sectors such as agriculture and mining with remote-sensing technology to track weather patterns, mining emissions and mineral-rich areas, the longer-term plan includes development of a leading-edge spaceport to reduce reliance on foreign launch sites.

But according to officials at BRIN, Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency, there’s still no confirmation of which company or government agencies would be responsible for the spate of launches planned for 2025.

“The main constraint was the government’s financial planning and budget cuts. We also couldn’t clinch foreign investment partners to join in developing the spaceport because it is high technology and high cost,” said BRIN researcher Thomas Djamalludin.

Starlink, SpaceX and Elon Musk

Jakarta has relied on Elon Musk’s SpaceX for launching its satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida, since 2019, and the billionaire entrepreneur last month launched a Starlink internet services satellite directly from Bali.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has repeatedly invited Musk to use the Papuan province island of Biak as a primary Starlink launch site, which has drawn outrage from locals who say developing the island as a spaceport will devastate its fragile ecology.

Although Biak has an airstrip, military base, deep-water seaport and ground stations, the 500 hectares (1.9 square miles) of government-owned land suitable for the spaceport would require foreign investment to cover the preliminary $613 million required to build the initial phase of the project. The total cost is dependent on what additional facilities investors want to build at the space port.

Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, said that Starlink is mulling the offer but that there are no immediate plans for collaboration.

According to Djamalludin of BRIN, China, which has dominated Indonesia’s 5G market and is on track to be the nation’s largest foreign investor, had expressed interest. However, a catastrophic April 2020 rocket launch that destroyed Indonesia’s $220 million Nusantara-2 satellite has complicated Jakarta’s relationship with China’s state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation.

Beijing has since dialed back its financial interests, declaring the Biak location too distant, while Jakarta has doubled down on wooing SpaceX for the upcoming launches, deeming the company more reliable, offering more time slots and cheaper reusable rockets.

Indonesia’s director of investment promotion at the Investment Coordinating Board, Saribua Siahaan, told VOA that Jakarta continues offering financial incentives, along with an easy investment permitting process for public-private partnerships.

No takers in 2023

As recently as 2023, BRIN officials promoted their spaceport plans at the G20 Space Economy Leaders’ Meeting and Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum. China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and India were invited as potential partners, but none signed on.

“Despite the 2013 Space Law having been in effect for nearly a decade, [Indonesia’s] government has yet to finalize implementing regulations for commercialization of space and spaceport development,” said Indonesian space-law scholars Ridha Aditya Nugraha and Yaries Mahardika Putro in a recent Jakarta Post op-ed.

Indonesia was the first country in ASEAN to enforce national space legislation. The 2013 Space law provides a legal framework regarding outer space, and it lays the foundation for space industry growth.

Foreign direct investment in space activities brings legal certainty that can attract investors. In the past decade, though, implementation of regulations has not occurred and that has made it difficult for the related ministeries to make Indonesia a space-faring country.

“This must be resolved immediately if Indonesia is serious about making outer space a revenue center and the driver of the economy in the future,” the op-ed said.

Apple’s App Store rules breach EU tech rules, EU regulators say

AMSTERDAM — Apple’s App Store rules breach EU tech rules because they prevent app developers from steering consumers to alternative offers, EU antitrust regulators said on Monday, a charge that could result in a hefty fine for the iPhone maker.

The European Commission, which also acts as the European Union’s antitrust and technology regulator, said it had sent its preliminary findings to Apple following an investigation launched in March.

The charge against Apple is the first by the Commission under its landmark Digital Markets Act which seeks to rein in the power of Big Tech and ensure a level playing field for smaller rivals. It has until March next year to issue a final decision.

EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager cited issues with Apple’s new terms.

“As they stand, we think that these new terms do not allow app developers to communicate freely with their end users, and to conclude contracts with them,” she told a conference.

The Commission said under most of the business terms, Apple allows steering only through ‘link-outs’, meaning that app developers can include a link in their app that redirects the customer to a web page where the customer can conclude a contract.

It also criticised the fees charged by Apple for facilitating via the App Store the initial acquisition of a new customer by developers, saying they went beyond what was strictly necessary for such remuneration.

Apple said it had made a number of changes in the past several months to comply with the DMA after getting feedback from developers and the Commission.

“We are confident our plan complies with the law, and estimate more than 99% of developers would pay the same or less in fees to Apple under the new business terms we created,” the company said in an email.

The EU executive said it was also opening an investigation into the iPhone maker over its new contractual requirements for third-party app developers and app stores and whether these were necessary and proportionate.

DMA breaches can cost companies fines as much as 10% of their global annual turnover.

Chinese hackers have stepped up attacks on Taiwanese organizations, cybersecurity firm says

Hong Kong — A suspected Chinese state-sponsored hacking group has stepped up its targeting of Taiwanese organizations, particularly those in sectors such as government, education, technology and diplomacy, according to cybersecurity intelligence company Recorded Future. 

In recent years, relations between China and Taiwan, a self-governed island across the Taiwan Strait that Beijing claims as its territory, have deteriorated. The cyberattacks by the group known as RedJulliett were observed between November 2023 and April 2024, during the lead up to Taiwan’s presidential elections in January and the subsequent change in administration. 

RedJuliett has targeted Taiwanese organizations in the past, but this is the first time that activity was seen at such a scale, a Recorded Future analyst said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. 

The report said RedJuliett attacked 24 organizations, including government agencies in places like Laos, Kenya and Rwanda, as well as Taiwan. 

It also hacked into websites of religious organizations in Hong Kong and South Korea, a U.S university and a Djiboutian university. The report did not identify the organizations. 

Recorded Future said RedJuliett accessed the servers of those places via a vulnerability in their SoftEther enterprise virtual private network, or VPN software, an open-source VPN that allows remote connections to an organization’s networks. 

RedJuliett has been observed attempting to break into systems of more than 70 Taiwanese organizations including three universities, an optoelectronics company and a facial recognition company that has contracts with the government. 

It was unclear if RedJuliett managed to break into those organizations: Recorded Future only said it observed the attempts to identify vulnerabilities in their networks. 

RedJuliett’s hacking patterns match those of Chinese state-sponsored groups, according to Recorded Future. 

It said that based on the geolocations of IP addresses, RedJulliett is likely based out of the city of Fuzhou, in China’s southern Fujian province, whose coast faces Taiwan. 

“Given the close geographical proximity between Fuzhou and Taiwan, Chinese intelligence services operating in Fuzhou are likely tasked with intelligence collection against Taiwanese targets,” the report said. 

“RedJuliett is likely targeting Taiwan to collect intelligence and support Beijing’s policy-making on cross-strait relations,” the Recorded Future report said.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately comment.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the allegations.

“I don’t know the specifics of what you mentioned, but I can tell you that it’s not the first time the company you mentioned has fabricated disinformation on so-called Chinese hacking operations. There is absolutely no professionalism or credibility to speak of in what the company does,” the spokesperson, Mao Ning, said.

Microsoft reported in August last year that RedJuliett, which Microsoft tracks under the name Flax Typhoon, was targeting Taiwanese organizations. 

China has in recent years stepped up military drills around Taiwan and imposed economic and diplomatic pressure on the island. 

Relations between Taiwan and Beijing worsened further after the election in January of Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te, who China has deemed a “separatist,” after he said in his inauguration speech that Taiwan and China were not subordinate to each other. Like his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, Lai has said that there is no need to declare Taiwanese independence because it is already an independent sovereign state. 

Like many other countries including the U.S., China has been known to engage in cyberespionage. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Britain accused China of a sweeping cyberespionage campaign that allegedly hit millions of people. 

Beijing has consistently denied engaging in any form of state-sponsored hacking, instead saying that China itself is a major target of cyberattacks. 

According to Recorded Future, Chinese state-sponsored groups will likely continue to target Taiwanese government agencies, universities and critical technology companies via “public-facing” devices such as open-source VPN software, which provide limited visibility and logging capabilities. 

Companies and organizations can best protect themselves by prioritizing and patching vulnerabilities once they become known, Recorded Future’s threat intelligence analyst said.

Germany assures China that doors still open to discuss EU surcharges

Shanghai, China — The German vice-chancellor assured China on Saturday that the “doors” remained “open” to discuss EU surcharges on Chinese electric vehicles, without reassuring Beijing which promised to “firmly defend” its manufacturers.

Also, the Minister of Economy and Climate, Robert Habeck is making a visit that seems like a last chance to avoid a trade war between the Old Continent and the second world power, an important economic partner of Germany.

A task further complicated by the political context, the German leader reproached China on Saturday for its economic support for Russia against a backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine, stressing it was “harming” relations between Beijing and Brussels.

China regularly denounces these upcoming surcharges on electric vehicles as being “purely protectionist.”

“These are not punitive customs duties,” Habeck assured Zheng Shanjie, director of the Chinese Economic Planning Agency (NDRC) Saturday, according to a recording sent to AFP by the Chinese Embassy in Germany.

“This is not a punishment,” he insisted.

Up to 28% increase

Without compromise by July 4, the European Commission will impose up to 28% increase in customs duties on imports of Chinese electric vehicles, accusing Beijing of having, according to it, distorted competition by massively subsidizing this sector.

These surcharges would become definitive from November.

“For Europe, I can say that the doors are open and the invitation or offer for discussion has been made several times. Now it must be accepted,” Habeck said at a news conference in Shanghai.

From Brussels, Olof Gill, the EU spokesperson, assured that European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis and Chinese Trade Minister Wang Wentao “had a frank and constructive call on Saturday regarding the anti-subsidy investigation of the EU on electric cars produced in China.”

“Both sides will continue to engage at all levels in the coming weeks,” he added.

China vows to defend ‘rights’

Earlier Saturday, the tone had been firm on the Chinese side.

“If the EU shows sincerity, China wants to start negotiations as soon as possible” on the surcharges, Trade Minister Wang told him, according to the English-speaking state television CGTN.

“But if the EU persists in this course, we will take all necessary measures to defend our interests. This will include lodging a complaint with the dispute settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization (WTO). We will firmly defend the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises.”

Beijing had already announced Monday that it had launched an anti-dumping investigation into imports of pork and pork products from the European Union.

German and European manufacturers are strongly affected by cheaper Chinese competition. Imports of Chinese electric vehicles into Germany increased tenfold between 2020 and 2023.

China argues that the success of its electricity sector is due to innovation and efficient supply chains, not subsidies.

“(EU) protectionism will not protect (its manufacturers’) competitiveness and will only slow down the global fight against climate change and the promotion of a green transition,” Zheng told Habeck.

“We expect Germany to show leadership within the EU and take the right measures,” implying the cancellation of surcharges, he insisted, according to the New China agency.

Habeck blames Beijing

Such an epilogue seems improbable, with Habeck again blaming Beijing on Saturday for the surge in its trade with Moscow.

“The Russian war of aggression and Chinese support for the Russian government are already harming trade and economic relations between Europe and China,” he said he told his Chinese interlocutors.

China has pledged not to supply weapons to Russia and calls for respect for the territorial integrity of all countries — including Ukraine. But China has never condemned Moscow for its invasion.

Habeck assured Saturday that many “dual-use” goods (both civil and military) were used by Russia after passing through “third countries” — implying China.

“We therefore cannot accept” that the Russian invasion is supported with these products, insisted the German vice-chancellor, calling on Beijing to ban their export to its Russian neighbor.

German car manufacturers still fear a major trade conflict with Beijing, which would undermine their activity in this crucial market. For Mercedes, Volkswagen or BMW, China represents up to 36% of sales volumes.

China, France launch satellite to better understand universe

Xichang, China — A French-Chinese satellite blasted off Saturday on a hunt for the mightiest explosions in the universe, in a notable example of cooperation between a Western power and the Asian giant.

Developed by engineers from both countries, the Space Variable Objects Monitor, or SVOM, will seek out gamma-ray bursts, the light from which has traveled billions of light years to reach Earth.

The 930-kilogram (2,050-pound) satellite carrying four instruments — two French, two Chinese — took off around 3 p.m. aboard a Chinese Long March 2-C rocket from a space base in Xichang, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, AFP journalists witnessed.

Gamma-ray bursts generally occur after the explosion of huge stars — those more than 20 times as big as the sun — or the fusion of compact stars.

The extremely bright cosmic beams can give off a blast of energy equivalent to over a billion billion suns.

Observing them is like “looking back in time, as the light from these objects takes a long time to reach us,” Ore Gottlieb, an astrophysicist at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Astrophysics in New York, told AFP.

“Several mysteries”

The rays carry traces of the gas clouds and galaxies they pass through on their journey through space — valuable data for better understanding the history and evolution of the universe.

“SVOM has the potential to unravel several mysteries in the field of [gamma-ray bursts], including detecting the most distant GRBs in the universe, which correspond to the earliest GRBs,” Gottlieb said.

The most distant bursts identified to date were produced just 630 million years after the Big Bang — when the universe was in its infancy.

“We are … interested in gamma-ray bursts for their own sake, because they are very extreme cosmic explosions which allow us to better understand the death of certain stars,” said Frederic Daigne, an astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris.

“All of this data makes it possible to test the laws of physics with phenomena that are impossible to reproduce in the laboratory on Earth,” he said.

Once analyzed, the data could help to better understand the composition of space, the dynamics of gas clouds or other galaxies.

The project stems from a partnership between the French and Chinese space agencies, as well as other scientific and technical groups from both nations.

Space cooperation at this level between the West and China is uncommon, especially since the United States banned all collaboration between NASA and Beijing in 2011.

Race against time

“U.S. concerns on technology transfer have inhibited U.S. allies from collaborating with the Chinese very much, but it does happen occasionally,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States.

In 2018, China and France jointly launched CFOSAT, an oceanographic satellite mainly used in marine meteorology.

And several European countries have taken part in China’s Chang’e lunar exploration program.

So, while SVOM is “by no means unique,” it remains “significant” in the context of space collaboration between China and the West, said McDowell.

Once in orbit 625 kilometers (388 miles) above the Earth, the satellite will send its data back to observatories.

The main challenge is that gamma-ray bursts are extremely brief, leaving scientists in a race against time to gather information.

Once it detects a burst, SVOM will send an alert to a team on duty around the clock.

Within five minutes, they will have to rev up a network of telescopes on the ground that will align precisely with the axis of the burst’s source to make more detailed observations.