Monkey King goes in search of dark matter.

Nature reports on China’s new research venture, sending the Monkey King rocket (they do have the best names in China) out to solve some scientific mysteries:

China’s first space-based dark-matter detector — nicknamed Wukong (or Monkey King) after a fictional warrior in a sixteenth-century Chinese novel — rocketed into the air on 17 December, marking the start of a new direction in the country’s space strategy.

From Earth’s orbit, the craft aims to detect high-energy particles and ?-rays. Physicists believe that dark matter — a substance so far observed only through its gravitational effects but thought to make up 85% of the Universe’s matter — could reveal itself by producing such cosmic rays as its particles annihilate.

But Wukong, more officially known as the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE), is also notable for being the first in a series of five space-science missions to emerge from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Strategic Priority Program on Space Science, which kicked off in 2011.

Following today’s lift-off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch in the Gansu province of northwest China, a further two missions will blast off next year: the world’s first quantum-communications satellite and an X-ray telescope observing in a unique energy band.

Wukong will use its large surface area to observe high volumes of cosmic rays, as well as where they come from. It will survey the sky at energies much higher than that of existing detectors such as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which is currently attached to the International Space Station. “We don’t know if this is a better way to search for dark matter, because dark matter has not yet been found,” says Mike Capell, an AMS physicist at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory.