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Russia seeks to hijack German telescope on its X-ray spacecraft

Artist's impression of the Spektr-RG spacecraft carrying the German ‘extended ROentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array’ (eROSITA) X-ray telescope and its Russian ART-XC partner instrument.
Enlarge / Artist’s impression of the Spektr-RG spacecraft carrying the German ‘extended ROentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array’ (eROSITA) X-ray telescope and its Russian ART-XC partner instrument.

German Aerospace Center

Launched in 2019 on a Proton rocket, the Spektrum-Röntgen-Gamma telescope is arguably the most significant space science mission built and flown by Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago.

The 1.2-ton Spektr-RG spacecraft, located about 1.5 million km from Earth in a halo orbit, is an advanced X-ray observatory designed to detect and map galaxy clusters as well as supermassive black holes. The concept for the spacecraft originated during the Soviet Union, but like a lot of major space projects, it was set aside during the USSR’s collapse.

The Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, eventually picked up the idea and partnered with the German space agency, DLR, on the mission. Under the plan, Russia would build the Spektr-RG spacecraft and launch it, whereas the Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics would design and build the primary instrument on board, named eROSITA. This instrument took its first observations in late 2019 and was intended to conduct a seven-year survey.

Everything went well until Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. As part of the Western response to that aggression, Germany took the step of halting its cooperation with Russia on the Spektr-RG telescope. At the time, eROSITA had completed four of eight “all-sky” surveys and was put into safe mode.

But now, the chief of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said it is time to turn eROSITA back on. Deutsche Welle reports that Rogozin made the following remarks during a Russian television program:

I gave instructions to start work on restoring the operation of the German telescope in the Spektr-RG system so it works together with the Russian telescope. Despite Germany’s demand to shut down one of the two telescopes at Spektr-RG, Russian specialists insist on continuing its work. Roscosmos will make relevant decisions in the near future. They—the people that made the decision to shut down the telescope—don’t have a moral right to halt this research for humankind just because their pro-fascist views are close to our enemies.

German officials said that restarting the scientific instrument without their cooperation could cause damage to the telescope.

The move represents another destructive act by Rogozin, who has been a prominent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Sources have suggested to Ars that Rogozin’s actions are calculated to curry favor with Putin, and he has been willing to sacrifice cooperation in space in order to look “strong” to his boss.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen a steadily decreasing space budget. Virtually all of its new civil space efforts have resulted from cooperation with Western partners, including the International Space Station, Spektr-RG, and numerous other projects. By burning these bridges with Western nations—who like to partner with Russia because of the technical expertise of its workforce—Russia is ensuring its further isolation in space.

The Spektr-RG telescope was intended to propel Russian scientists to the forefront of the field of X-ray astronomy, but now it likely will only serve as another cautionary tale about partnering with Putin.

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