The Russians May Hijack a German Space Telescope

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Russia’s legacy of space exploration from the Soviet era has made it a major player in international aerospace projects like the International Space Station. However, the country’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed many of these relationships to the breaking point. After Germany’s Max Planck Institute opted to turn off the eROSITA space telescope it deployed in partnership with Russia, Putin ally and Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin now says the country will take over the spacecraft and restore operation, reports Gizmodo. 

Like ExoMars, Roscosmos partnered with European partners to make the Spektr-RG space observatory happen. It launched in 2019 and is currently orbiting the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point like the James Webb Space Telescope. Its goal is to conduct an expansive 7.5-year X-ray survey of the sky in search of new galactic clusters and active galactic nuclei. The eROSITA X-ray instrument, with its array of seven identical mirrors (see above), is just half of the Spektr-RG space observatory. The secondary instrument is a Russian X-ray telescope called ART-XC, which is dependent on eROSITA. 

Roscosmos used to steer clear of political matters, but Rogozin’s emphatic support for Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed the agency’s international relationships. The Max Planck Institute opted to pause the mission earlier this year following the start of the Russia-Ukraine War, but Rogozin now says he has ordered his agency to begin preparations to reactivate eROSITA on its own. “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,” Rogozin said. 

Spektr-RG as it appears in space.

The Russian scientific community has thus far chosen not to back the move. Rashid Sunyaev, who oversees the Spektr-RG program, worries that Russia will damage Germany’s instrument by attempting to take it over. Its loss would be a major blow to the study of distant galaxies. Lev Zeleny from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science has also opposed the move for “both political and technical reasons.” Zeleny also notes that it may not be possible to validate or publish data acquired from eROSITA if Roscosmos goes through with the plan. 

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These disagreements are probably going to continue for some time. Russia’s offensive in Ukraine was supposed to be wrapped up in a matter of days, but it has been mired in a protracted conflict for months due to fierce Ukrainian resistance. It’s already unlikely that the second ExoMars mission will launch as planned later this year, and there’s constant tension about cooperation around the International Space Station. NASA must be thanking its lucky stars that it has the SpaceX Dragon to ferry crew to and from the International Space Station.

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