Fears grow as Russia’s only space telescope goes AWOL

14 Jan 2019

Image: © Mulderphoto/Stock.adobe.com

Russia’s sole window into the deepest parts of the cosmos has been shut, with reports that ground control has lost all radio contact with the satellite.

In 2011, Russian space agency Roscosmos launched what it hoped would be its own answer to the Hubble Space Telescope as part of a mission funded by the country’s Astro Space Center. Unlike Hubble, the Spektr-R satellite is significantly more powerful, at about 700 times the orbital height of the NASA craft and having the best image resolution of any instrument built by humans to date.

However, according to the country’s RIA Novosti news agency (via the BBC), the Astro Space Center has lost contact with most of its communication systems as of Friday (11 January). According to the centre’s chief, Nikolai Kardashev, specialists have tried again and again to issue commands to Spektr-R, but it has failed to respond.

He did add that, somewhat curiously, it is still transmitting scientific data. While this would suggest a major equipment failure on board the satellite, Kardashev said “there is still hope” that scientists on the ground can regain control of the space telescope.

If contact is lost permanently with Spektr-R, the scientists behind the mission can take solace in the fact that it has far exceeded its initial mission, with it only expected to be in use for a period of five years after launch. However, because it is in a very distant, stable orbit no longer intersecting the moon’s own orbit, it could continue on its current path for possibly thousands of years.

Regardless of Spektr-R’s outcome, its successor – the Spektr-RG – is expected to launch later this year as part of a Russian and German collaboration. While the project dates as far back as the Soviet era, it finally became a reality in the mid-2000s.

Its mission will be to tap into valuable scientific data within the field of high-energy astrophysics.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic