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Russian satellite on mission to peer inside black holes

Posted: July 18, 2011

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Russia launched a long-delayed radio telescope Monday to help astronomers see deeper into supermassive black holes, obtain views of collapsed stars and better measure the influence of dark energy on the cosmos.

The Spektr-R radio observatory launched on a Zenit rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Roscosmos
It was the largest Russian-led space telescope to launch in two decades. The launch came a few months before Russia plans to send a probe to Mars in November on the country's first interplanetary mission since 1996.

The 8,000-pound Spektr-R spacecraft blasted off at 0231 GMT Monday (10:31 p.m. EDT Sunday) on a Zenit 3F rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The 20-story rocket rumbled into a clear morning sky at Baikonur, disappearing from view as it shed its kerosene-fueled first stage above the stratosphere.

Less than 10 minutes after launch, the two-stage Zenit, supplied by Ukraine, placed the Russian Freget upper stage into a parking orbit a few hundred miles high. The Fregat stage fired twice to propel the Spektr-R satellite into a higher orbit reaching as far as 210,000 miles from Earth, according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

The Fregat upper stage released the satellite at 0606 GMT (2:06 a.m. EDT), Roscosmos reported.

The craft's flight path will naturally shift due to the influence of the moon's gravity over the course of the five-year mission. It will take Spektr-R up to nine days to go around the Earth in its egg-shaped orbit.

Spektr-R will next extend two solar arrays and unfurl its flower-like dish receiver antenna to a diameter of 10 meters, or almost 33 feet. It is comprised of 27 carbon fiber petals that take up to two hours to fully deploy.

The Spektr-R satellite is one element of an international network of observatories in a project called RadioAstron. When linked with ground-based telescopes across the globe, Spektr-R will facilitate unprecedented views into black holes that form the centers of galaxies.

Diagram of Spektr-R's orbit and a ground-based telescope, illustrating the concept of interferometry. Credit: Lebedev Physical Isntitute/Astro Space Center
The combination of ground and space telescopes is called interferometry, creating an artifical observatory comparable to a single dish larger than Earth. The broad size of the combined instrument means it can collect extremely faint radio signals unheard by any other sensor.

The RadioAstron project's exceptional sensitivity could allow the connected telescopes to peer into black holes and resolve the event horizon, the point at which nothing -- not even light -- can escape a black hole's immense gravitational grasp.

When tied together, RadioAstron's telescopes have a resolution of 7 microarcseconds. That's thousands of times better than the Hubble Space Telescope, which has a peak resolution between 0.05 and 0.1 arcseconds.

An arcsecond is swath of the sky measuring less than three one-thousandths of a degree.

But Hubble observes the universe in visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared light, while the RadioAstron mission will unveil the unseen cosmos emitting radio waves.

One of the primary targets the RadioAstron team plans to study is M87, a nearby galaxy that features a jet of matter emanating from a supermassive black hole at its center. It is also a well-known source of radio waves.

The M87 galaxy is the best opportunity for RadioAstron researchers to image the event horizon, which is large enough to swallow the entire solar system. Astronomers estimate M87's central black hole is 6.6 billion times as massive as the sun.

Artist's concept of the Spektr-R satellite in orbit. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
The RadioAstron project could potentially answer the question of whether the galaxy's core actually contains the mouth of a wormhole, a theorized shortcut through space and time, according to the Lebedev Physical Institute's Astro Space Center, a division of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Astro Space Center is coordinating the Spektr-R mission. The spacecraft was manufactured by NPO Lavochkin, a leading Russian satellite developer.

Other scientific studies for the RadioAstron mission include pulsars -- the fast-spinning collapsed remnants of dead stars -- dark energy's role in the expansion of the universe, star formation, and interstellar plasma, according to the Astro Space Center.

Before Spektr-R, radio telescope interferometers were limited to the size of Earth. But the Russian-led satellite mission was deployed in an orbit taking it nearly to the moon, adding a new observatory to the chain of ground-based facilities and expanding their collecting area into space.

Russian scientists first drew up plans for the Spektr-R mission three decades ago, but the project was mired in economic muck during the fall of the Soviet Union and the early years of a new Russian government.

After scrapping a complex spacecraft design riddled with technical problems and rising costs, Russian engineers settled on a more modest mission in the early 2000s.

Spektr-R's 33-foot reflector during a deployment test on the ground. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
The RadioAstron project includes major contributions from the United States, China, India, Australia, Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and the European Space Agency.

The first "fringe search" science campaign involving Spektr-R is planned later this year once the satellite finishes testing in orbit. The 1,000-foot-diameter Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico will join the search, along with the smaller Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, a 330-foot-wide dish in Effelsberg, Germany, and up to a half-dozen more facilities around the world, according to the Astro Space Center's website.

More radio telescopes on Earth could participate in future searches.