“Spektr-RG”. Third Eye In The Universe

Russian-German Astrophysics Observatory “Spektr-RG” designed to plot up a complete map of the Universe in X-ray band was launched into space on July 13, 2019 by means of carrier missile “Proton-M”.

It has been built over thirty years and having undergone a lot of alternations during that time this laboratory will remain the most advanced in the world at least for the nearest ten years.

A long way

The construction of “Spektr-RG” started back in 1987. Back then the project vision was shaped by USST scientists together with a group of colleagues from other countries: Finland, GDP, Denmark, Italy, and the UK. The first scientist who proposed to design such a telescope was academician Rashid Syunaev in his speech at the conference dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the first Soviet satellite PS-1 launching. According to this project, it was proposed to design an X-ray telescope with a great area of detectors put together. Scientists planned to use it for plotting a large-scale map of the Universe – a model of the Universe visible to mankind, which was supposed to have all large clusters of galaxies marked.

Originally, it was planned to build several large telescopes at once to be operating in different spectrum – “Spektr-R” (“Radioastron”), “Spektr-RG”, “Spektr-UF” and “Spektr-M” (“Millimetron”). Together they could have given a picture that was inaccessible before but very important to all astronomers and astrophysicists. The construction of X-ray telescopes started already in 1988 in Lavochkin Production and Research Enterprise, but alas, came to a halt quickly enough. The 1990s started and the project was getting finances just slightly above zero.

It became clear that it was an impossible task to implement all four space observatories in parallel, that is why a decision was taken to put all four operations step by step and collect data successively and then integrate the data into a whole picture. “Spektr-RG” was one of the top priority projects for Russian space engineering at that time, however the money was short and most finances were allocated to cover the next “window” for a flight to Mars under “Mars-96” mission (however, it was not implemented due to a failure of the booster stage).

At that time X-ray telescope “Spektr-RG” weighed over six tons, out of which the research equipment weight amounted to over 2,700 kilograms. This is a very good ratio, showing design efficiency. However, already in the 1990s it became clear that it was impossible to meet the declared time frames. The launch date gradually started sliding to the right – from 1997 to 2006. But even such a delay could not help and the work on “Spektr-RG” came to a halt in 2002. The top priority was given to “Spektr-R”, which was launched on July 18, 2011.

Getting rid of extras

Already in 2002, after long talks it was decided to gradually simplify and cheapen the project. Only in September 2005 this project was ready and approved. “Spektr-RG” “lost its weight” to 2,385 kilograms, to tell the truth, and the list of equipment was noticeably reduced but finally financing started to pour in and real production kicked off. Unfortunately, it took Lavochkin SPE much more time than initially estimated.

A “proto-flight” model was finalized only in 2013 and then there were problems with equipment, which was supposed to be supplied by foreign partners. The eROSITA telescope manufactured by Max Plank Institute was the main reason for further delays and as a result, it was at last delivered to Moscow only in February 2017. Moreover, it required extra time for reprogramming all the on-board complex.

Then another delay happened due to sanctions: “Russian Space Systems” Company failed to manufacture an on-board radio complex on time for transmission scientific data to the Earth. It cost several months more to delay. Consequently, the telescope was ready and tested only on April 22, 2019.

Lagrange Point

According to design, the space observatory “Spektr-RG” will spin around Sun – Earth Lagrangian Point L₂ with a period of six months. This is a point between the Earth and the Sun, where gravitational forces of the two celestial bodies are mutually compensated. This will help “Spektr-RG” stay longer on required orbit without consuming fuel for its correction.

As of now, having completed its one hundred days long journey, with the speed reaching 16.2 kilometers per second, the X-ray observatory arrived to the Lagrange Point 2 (L2). All the equipment and the X-ray telescopes – Russian “Spektr-RG” and German eROSITA – work properly and will have to operate for at least 7.5 years.  

It is believed that using “Spektr-RG” will allow scientists to carry out a complete observation of the sky within ranges that are unreachable from the Earth. Employing two telescopes, Russian ART-XC and German eROSITA, will allow scientists to get the maximum detailed picture and catalogue millions of X-ray films. The observatory will “see” and can transfer to the Earth locations of more than 100,000 far clusters of galaxies, black holes, white dwarfs and other celestial bodies which are of great interest for scientists.

Taking into account the current status of the project, it seems that waiting for thirty years has not been in vain. “Spektr-RG” will become the main event in global extraterrestrial astronomy and astrophysics, and we most likely will hear in the nearest future about new discoveries made by the unique Russian-German space observatory.

Mikhail Kotov

©New defence order. Strategy  №1 (60) 2020

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