Russian space science got a long overdue shot in the arm this week with the launch of Spektr-R, a radioastronomy satellite that was originally designed in 1982 but whose construction and launch was stalled because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spektr-R, which is Russian for "spectrum," was successfully orbited on 18 July by a Russian Zenit launcher and its solar arrays were deployed. It will be several days before the satellite unfurls its 10-meter-wide radio dish, made up of 27 carbon-fiber "petals." "[Spektr-R] has been almost ready for launch since I was a Ph.D. student in the late 1980s. It's remarkable that these people have persevered and are now rewarded with a successful launch," says Michael Garrett, director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.
The goal of the Russian satellite is to work with ground-based radiotelescopes to create images of unprecedented precision. Spaced-based radiotelescopes are uncommon because Earth's atmosphere does not block radio waves, making ground-based scopes more than good enough. But the signals from widely spaced radiotelescopes are often combined using a technique called interferometry to produce data with much greater angular resolution, equivalent to what could be obtained from a telescope with a dish the size of the so-called baseline, the distance between the smaller, dispersed telescopes. The Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, uses this technique, as does the European VLBI Network. In 1997, Japanese researchers launched a radioastronomy satellite called HALCA (also known as MUSES-B) which did interferometry in combination with earthbound telescopes before it was retired in 2005. From its maximum orbit, HALCA created a baseline of 21,400 kilometers.
Spektr-R will attempt to increase this distance by another order of magnitude. Its orbit swings in close to Earth—around 500 kilometers away—and then loops out to 340,000 kilometers, roughly the orbit of the moon. At this distance "the resolution will be unbelievably thin," says Albert Zijlstra, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in the United Kingdom.