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Scientists confirm ‘first light’ from Russian-German deep-space telescope

Spektr-RG russian X-ray space telescope (Pliny/Wikipedia)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The German head of a Russian-German effort to map the universe from deep space says the project’s German telescope is fully functioning after a three-month journey to its orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

The Spektr-RG observatory that houses the German eROSITA and Russian ART-XC X-ray telescopes should produce seamless images of the cosmos that stretch back billions of years.

Scientists hope the resulting images over at least the next four years can help unravel mysteries about the origins and future of the universe.

“We are now in an orbit around L2” — a reference to the “Logarian point” that will shield the telescopes from the sun — “[and] all seven cameras of eROSITA are working,” Peter Predehl, head of the eROSITA team, told RFE/RL on October 22.

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He said the eROSITA team had seen the first scientific data — or “proper first light” — confirming an end to the commissioning phase on October 18, more than three months after a Russian Proton-M rocket took off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan in July with it and the ART-SC housed on a Navigator spacecraft.

Russian scientists are expected to announce the status of their ART-XC telescope, the result of a Soviet-era idea to use “hard” X-rays to chart the cosmos, during coordinated press conferences in Moscow and at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics’ facilities outside Munich later on October 22.

A source involved in the project told RFE/RL that the Russian Navigator and ART-XC both appeared to be working well.

The Spektr-RG’s uniqueness lies in its sensitivity to high-energy X-rays and its ability to observe the entire sky at once.

‘Hard’ X-Rays

Such “hard” X-rays should help spot millions of supergiant black holes, track the speed and movement of galaxy clusters, investigate binary stars, and trace remnants of star explosions, or supernovas.

Tashkent-born astrophysicist Rashid Sunyaev, one of the men who proposed the X-ray mapping project to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, is the lead Russian scientist on the Spektr-RG.

Russia hopes that success with the observatory boosts its prestige in space exploration and astrophysics after a handful of setbacks in recent years, including the loss in January of a Spektr-R mission to map radio waves partway through its planned five-year lifespan.

The Germans turned to Russia’s Roskosmos space agency in 2009 for help getting their telescope aloft.

Spektr-RG brings together Roskosmos, Germany’s national aerospace center DLR, and scientific institutes and universities in both countries.

The Russians agreed, although they attached conditions that effectively split the sky into a German half and a Russian half for the purpose of scientific publication.

Predehl said earlier reports suggesting a possibly defective power supply during the startup of eROSITA’s seven cameras had proved unfounded.

“There was never a defect, neither in the power system nor somewhere else in electronics,” he told RFE/RL. “We had a few ‘events’ which we have not understood but considered to be potentially harming the instrument. This is gone.”

Russian scientists reportedly hope to launch another satellite, known as Spektr-UF, in 2025 to observe visible and ultraviolet light, according to nasaspaceflight.com.