A Little Love For Radio Astron
There has been a lot of attention paid to the final shuttle mission and even the Dawn spacecraft going into orbit around the asteroid Vesta. Lost in all this is a pretty cool Russian led mission called Radio Astron. The final piece of this puzzle is now in place with the launch of the Spektr-R satellite last night.
Spektr-R is a pretty impressive piece of engineering. This satellite is a radio telescope that will unfold in space to a diameter of 10 meters (over 30 feet). It’s been launched into a very elliptical orbit that will range from about 10,000km from the Earth to 390,000 km from the Earth, a little farther from Earth than the Moon (and the Moon’s gravity will slowly change its orbit over time!)
Okay, so we have a 10 meter radio dish orbiting the Earth. We have much larger radio dishes on Earth, so what’ the big deal? Spektr-R will be used in conjunction with radio telescopes on Earth. By combining its observations with those made by radio telescopes on Earth, it can obtain the resolution equivalent to that of a single dish up to 390,000km across! That translates into a resolution over 1,000 times better than Hubble (but in the radio part of the spectrum). You can find a whole list of the ground based facilities it will work with here, including my beloved Green Bank Telescope.
This high resolution will enable us to really zoom in on the active regions surrounding black holes at the centers of galaxies, probably one of the most exciting problems this project will tackle.
This project has been a long time coming. It was first proposed over 30 years ago and been mired in technical, political and funding difficulties. It survived the breakup of the Soviet Union. I spent a summer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank in 2003 and they had posters up highlighting their participation in this upcoming mission. Great to see it launched. I look forward to a successful check out for them and the first science observations later this year!
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