China’s first satellite for its space-based gravitational wave detection program, Tianqin, is set to embark on its trek to space by the end of 2019.

The program was initiated by cosmologists from Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University in 2015, with the ultimate goal of launching three purpose-built satellites to form an equilateral triangle around the earth.

“It’s like a harp (tianqin) in space. If the gravitational waves come, the ‘harp’s strings’ – laser communications among the three satellites – will be plucked,” said Luo Jun, president of Sun Yat-sen University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Luo told Xinhua that detection will be based on high-precision laser interferometry technology to measure the changes of the distances and locations of the three satellite probes.

Gravitational waves are “ripples” in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the universe. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916 in his general theory of relativity.

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An artist’s rendering of gravitational waves, caused by the movement of massive celestial bodies and their pull of spacetime. Photo: Handout
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Luo Jun, leader of the Tianqin program and President of Sun Yet-sen University, shows a reporter the massive underground lab for gravitational wave studies in the central city of Wuhan. Photo: China Central Television screen grab

The first-ever discovery of gravitational waves by the US Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, announced in February 2016, has encouraged scientists worldwide to press ahead with their hunt for the disturbances in space.

The Chinese space-based probes will be used to detect gravitational waves at much lower frequencies, and which are generated by the merging of massive or supermassive black holes, said Luo.

“Laser-ranging” is one of the pivotal technologies for such detection. China accomplished the feat in January when scientists projected a 384,400-km laser beam at the moon.

The communication relaying satellite of China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe, launched in May, carries a laser reflector developed by Luo’s team, and is expected to extend laser projection to a record distance of 460,000 km in 2019.

The European Space Agency has also launched a space-based gravitational wave detection program, the “Laser Interferometer Space Antenna” project.

Read more: China to build gravitational wave simulator in Shenzen