Russia seeks to hijack German telescope on its X-ray spacecraft

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of the Spektr-RG spacecraft carrying the German “extended ROentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array” (eROSITA) X-ray telescope and its Russian partner instrument ART-XC.

German Aerospace Center

Launched in 2019 on a Proton rocket, the Spektrum-Röntgen-Gamma Telescope is arguably the most significant space science mission built and piloted by Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago.

The 1.2-ton Spektr-RG spacecraft, located about 1.5 million km from Earth in a halo orbit, is an advanced X-ray observatory designed to detect and map galaxy clusters as well as holes supermassive blacks. The concept of the spacecraft originated during the Soviet Union, but like many major space projects, it was shelved during the collapse of the USSR.

The Russian space company, Roscosmos, eventually picked up the idea and partnered with the German space agency, DLR, for the mission. Under the plan, Russia would build the Spektr-RG spacecraft and launch it, while the Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics would design and build the main onboard instrument, named eROSITA. This instrument made its first observations at the end of 2019 and was intended to conduct a seven-year survey.

All went well until Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. As part of the Western response to this aggression, Germany took the decision to end its cooperation with Russia on the Spektr-RG telescope. At the time, eROSITA had completed four of the eight “all sky” surveys and had been put into safe mode.

But now the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said it was time to reactivate eROSITA. Deutsche Welle reports that Rogozin made the following remarks during a Russian TV broadcast:

I gave instructions to start work on restoring the functioning of the German telescope in the Spektr-RG system to work with the Russian telescope. Despite Germany’s request to close one of the two Spektr-RG telescopes, Russian specialists insist on continuing its work. Roscosmos will make relevant decisions in the near future. They – the people who made the decision to shut down the telescope – do not have the moral right to stop this search for humanity just because their pro-fascist views are close to our enemies.

German officials said restarting the scientific instrument without their cooperation could damage the telescope.

The move represents another destructive act by Rogozin, who has been a prominent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. Sources have suggested to Ars that Rogozin’s actions are calculated to curry favor with Putin, and he has been willing to sacrifice cooperation in space in order to appear “strong” to his boss.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen its space budget steadily shrink. Almost all of its new civilian space efforts result from cooperation with Western partners, including the International Space Station, Spektr-RG, and many other projects. By cutting these bridges with Western nations – which like to associate with Russia because of the technical expertise of its workforce – Russia ensures its isolation in space.

The Spektr-RG telescope was intended to propel Russian scientists to the forefront of the field of X-ray astronomy, but now it will likely only serve as another cautionary tale about partnering with Putin.

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