Russia launches 'biggest-ever' space telescope

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The Russian RadioAstron space telescope - effectively, the biggest ever - has been successfully launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

While the telescope itself has a nothing-to-write-home-about 10-meter antenna, it will be connected to ground-based telescopes through interferometry to give a far higher effective resolution - up to 10,000 times better than the Hubble Space telescope.

Ground stations in Australia, Chile, China, Europe, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, and the US have promised to take part.

"It will allow us to look into the furthest reaches of the universe with a very sharp resolution and receive data about extra-galactic phenomena," project head Viktor Khartov of the Lavochkin institute told Russian news agencies.

The 5,000 kilogram spacecraft was launched by a Zenith-3M launcher with Fregat-SB upper stage at 6.31am MSK yesterday. It will orbit in an elliptical path, reaching a distance of 390,000 kilometers - further from the Earth than any telescope before.

The telescope's dish is made up of 27 carbon fiber 'petals', which will unfurl in orbit.

Its tasks, during its five-year mission, include collecting data on water masers - clouds of water molecules found in the discs of galaxies. The data should help scietists learn more about the rotation rate of the galaxies, from which the present-day expansion rate of space and the effect of dark energy could be calculated.

It will also study pulsars, to examine the distribution of dust and gas around the exploded stars. And it will examine the event horizon of a black hole at the center of the galaxy M87.

The first images from RadioAstron - also known as Spectrum-R - are expected to be released by the end of the year.