July 20, 2011

Russian Telescope Begins Operations

A Russian radio telescope intended to be the largest of its kind in space, has started its stellar orbit around planet Earth for the first time since being launched, reports BBC News.

The radio telescope, named RadioAstron, part of the Russian space observatory -- Spectrum-R -- will travel in an elliptical orbit that at its farthest point from Earth will take it close to the Moon.

It was carried into orbit by the Zenith-3M rocket, taking off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on Monday July 18. Once RadioAstron is fully operational, the 4+ ton satellite could help focus in on many remote reaches of the universe.

RadioAstron's antenna is only 33 feet across, making it much smaller than antennas of many other radio telescopes on Earth. However, the satellite will be combined with signals of those on Earth, thus making it the largest radio telescope in space.

Shortly after arriving at its destination in orbit, RadioAstron successfully opened its solar panels, said Viktor Kharkov, head of Lavochkin R&D, builder of RadioAstron. He added that the telescope will follow an orbit that will take it eight days and seven hours to circle the planet.

"On the fifth day [after the launch] the telescope's mirror will open, and in the three following months we will prepare the observatory for practical work," he told BBC News.

RadioAstron is expected to produce more precise data than United States' Hubble space telescope, but the Russian Federal space agency Roscosmos said their device was not meant to replace it.

"Hubble is an optical telescope and RadioAstron is radio," Aleksei Kuznetsov, Roscosmos' spokesperson, told BBC News. "I would say that the two will complement each other."

Once the radio telescope's 27 carbon fiber petals open up to form a dish, it will begin collecting data, then combine that with data captured by radio telescopes on Earth.

This cooperation between RadioAstron and the network of telescopes on Earth used to form single images is called interferometry. The result is expected to have an incredibly high resolution.

Among the telescope's priorities is for it to zoom in on neighboring galaxy M-87, about 59 million light years away. Scientists believe there is a black hole there, and RadioAstron aims to find evidence of this theory.

RadioAstron will also collect data on pulsars, interstellar plasma and neutron stars in the Milky Way.

RadioAstron is funded by the Russian Astro Space Center. It was designed by PN Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Science and the S.A. Lavochkin Federal Research & Production Association in cooperation with numerous Russian and international organizations.

The Soviets first began building the telescope back in the 1980s, but the project suffered setbacks and was put on hold indefinitely when the USSR collapsed in 1991.

"In the 1990s, financial hurdles prevented us from completing the observatory, but in recent years Russia has come back to it," said Kuznetsov. "The launch of Spectrum-R is one of the main aspects of Roscosmos' space program."

The space observatory is expected to remain in orbit for at least five years, according to Roscosmos.

Russia is also planning later this year to launch its Phobos-Grunt mission, which will send a craft to Phobos, one of Mars' natural satellites.


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