Decades Late, Russian Space Telescope Finally Launched

Russian space science got a long overdue shot in the arm this week with the launch of Spektr-R, a radioastronomy satellite that was originally designed in 1982 but whose construction and launch was stalled because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spektr-R, which is Russian for "spectrum," was successfully orbited on 18 July by a Russian Zenit launcher and its solar arrays were deployed. It will be several days before the satellite unfurls its 10-meter-wide radio dish, made up of 27 carbon-fiber "petals." "[Spektr-R] has been almost ready for launch since I was a Ph.D. student in the late 1980s. It's remarkable that these people have persevered and are now rewarded with a successful launch," says Michael Garrett, director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.

The goal of the Russian satellite is to work with ground-based radiotelescopes to create images of unprecedented precision. Spaced-based radiotelescopes are uncommon because Earth's atmosphere does not block radio waves, making ground-based scopes more than good enough. But the signals from widely spaced radiotelescopes are often combined using a technique called interferometry to produce data with much greater angular resolution, equivalent to what could be obtained from a telescope with a dish the size of the so-called baseline, the distance between the smaller, dispersed telescopes. The Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, uses this technique, as does the European VLBI Network. In 1997, Japanese researchers launched a radioastronomy satellite called HALCA (also known as MUSES-B) which did interferometry in combination with earthbound telescopes before it was retired in 2005. From its maximum orbit, HALCA created a baseline of 21,400 kilometers.

Spektr-R will attempt to increase this distance by another order of magnitude. Its orbit swings in close to Earth—around 500 kilometers away—and then loops out to 340,000 kilometers, roughly the orbit of the moon. At this distance "the resolution will be unbelievably thin," says Albert Zijlstra, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in the United Kingdom.

Spektr-R aims to study the structure and dynamics of radiosources both inside and beyond our galaxy, shedding light on the structure of galaxies, star formation, black holes, dark matter, and interstellar space. Zijlstra says with the expected resolution provided by Spektr-R, it may be possible to look at the supermassive black holes at the centers of active galaxies and actually resolve objects close to the event horizon. "We've been wanting to do this for a long time," he adds.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had planned a series of Spektr satellites covering different wavelengths, mirroring NASA's "Great Observatories"—Hubble, Compton, Chandra, and Spitzer. But when the Soviet Union collapsed and research funding evaporated, Russian space scientists focused their meager resources on the Mars-94 probe (later transmuted into Mars-96). When that was lost during launch in November 1996, attention switched back to the Spektr missions. Limited funding meant that development was slow and the long gestation meant that obsolete components had to be replaced. Spektr-RG, an x-ray observatory, was the top priority until it was eclipsed by the launch of Europe's INTEGRAL observatory in 2002. So Spektr-R got the top slot and was finally assembled from the parts researchers had been working on all those years. Its launch was slated for 2004-2006, but more financial troubles in the Russian space program led to more delays. Funding finally picked up in the second half of the decade, leading to this week's launch. "It's a big step forward," says Zijlstra. "I hope it will work, but you can never tell in space."