Russia threatens to hijack German space telescope

A view of the eROSITA X-ray telescope before final packaging into its carbon fiber frame.

A view of the eROSITA X-ray telescope before final packaging into its carbon fiber frame.
Photograph: MEP

The Russian space agency has announced its intention to unilaterally take control of a German telescope mounted on a Russian spacecraft. It’s a terrible, irresponsible idea, since even Russian scientists will admit.

The German developer of the eROSITA telescope, the Max Planck Institute, put the instrument into sleep mode last February in protest against Russia’s unjustified and ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The X-ray telescope is the main instrument aboard the joint Russian-German Spektr-RG mission, which the Russian space agency Roscosmos launched into space in July 2019. The Russian X-ray telescope ART-XC is also connected to the spacecraft and works in conjunction with eROSITA.

It now appears, however, that Russia will reactivate eROSITA without the explicit consent of the Max Planck Institute, As reported in Deutsche Welle. Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin, a devout supporter of Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, made his intentions clear during a recent television interview.

“I gave instructions to start work on restoring the German telescope’s operation in the Spektr-RG system to work in conjunction with the Russian telescope,” Rogozin said. “Despite Germany’s demand to shut down one of the two Spektr-RG telescopes, Russian experts insist on continuing their work. Roscosmos will make relevant decisions in the near future.”

To which he added: “They – the people who made the decision to turn off the telescope – have no moral right to stop this research for humanity just because their pro-fascist views are close to our enemies.”

Spektr-RG is currently in a halo orbit about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. The scientific phase of the 7.5-year collaborative mission began in October 2019. The eROSITA telescope is in the midst of a all-sky survey, in which it is scanning the universe in the mid-range X-rays “with unprecedented spectral and angular resolution”, according to to the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The device consists of seven identical mirror modules, each containing 54 nested mirror shells that enable the telescope’s high sensitivity.

Scientists from the eROSITA project are using the telescope to map the large-scale structure of the universe, detect obscured black holes in nearby galaxies, and study the physics of X-ray sources such as young stars, supernova remnants and X-ray binaries.

Lev Zeleny, scientific director of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke out against the decision to turn eROSITA back on, saying: “Our institute – all scientists – strongly oppose this proposal”, as it was cited by the Russian state Gazette. The objection, Zeleny said, “is for both political and technical reasons,” saying it’s unclear whether Russian astronomers will actually figure out how to use eROSITA, or whether outside journals will publish any scientific results that might come from the change. .

The scientific supervisor of the Spektr-RG project, Rashid Sunyaev, is concerned that Russian astronomers could accidentally damage Germany’s telescope as it reported on Interfax, a Russian private media outlet. “This is a wonderful device, absolutely world-class, which has already provided a lot of data,” Sunyaev said. “We all dream of seeing him return to active work. But it’s an incredibly complex device, and if we decide to ignore partner agreements and activate it on ourselves, it could just ruin it,” Sunyaev said.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been damaging on many levels, including the scientific field. It will likely take years, if not decades, for these broken relationships to mend. Rogozin’s decision to space-jack a telescope would just do it a worse bad situation. He better think twice.

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