Libmonster ID: BY-1555
Author(s) of the publication: Marina KHALIZEVA

In 2011, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) launched a unique space observatory, "Radioastron", with a 10-meter reflector antenna that, together with the largest ground-based radio telescopes and tracking stations, forms a system making it possible to study the nuclei of galaxies and other astronomical objects at the hitherto unprecedented high resolution of millionths of seconds of arc, that is millions of times better than the naked human eye.

This landmark event in the history of national and world astrophysics occurred on July 18, when the Zenit-3M rocket with the acceleration pod "Fregat 2SB" was launched from the Baikonur space-drome carrying the satellite module Spectr R to a high-apogee orbit.

Let us recall that the program "Radioastron" was initiated by the Astrospace Center of the Lebedev Physics Institute (FIAN) way back in the 1980s. Nikolai Kardashev (elected to the national Academy of Sciences

Cosmic radio interferometer "Radioastron".

Science in Russia, No. 1, 2012

стр. 33

Layout of the radio telescope and the base module.

in 1990), a follower of the founder of the Soviet school of modern astrophysics, corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences losif Shklovsky, and his colleagues started building a telescope to obtain images, coordinates and angular movements of various objects in the Universe. However, in 1990 the project was frozen due to financial reasons. Thereupon it was resumed and was eventually completed in the 2000s. Now this project is a part of global international cooperation that integrates scientific forces of 20 countries.

The astrophysical satellite carries a useful load of about 2,500 kg with complex electronic equipment manufactured by the FIAN Astrospace Center and partners from the United States, India, Australia, Finland, and Switzerland, and a parabolic antenna--the "heart" of the onboard observatory placed on the "Navigator" platform (developed by the Lavochkin R&D Association at Khimki, Moscow Region). The antenna comprises a three-meter-diameter central mirror and 27 "petals" made of composite carbon material. These "petals" unfolded in space with an accuracy of 0.5 mm, forming an umbrella-like telescopic structure with a diameter of 10 m. The high reflectivity of the antenna's surface (98 percent) is provided by a 100 µm-thick aluminum coating and a system designed to combat heat strain maintaining a constant surface temperature within ±50 °C.

The space telescope has a relatively small usable area, so for observation efficiency it works in conjunction with its ground-based counterparts in Russia (in Pushchino of the Moscow Region where the oldest FIAN Radio Astronomy Observatory is located), in Australia (Canberra) and the USA (Green Bank). The observatory is controlled from the Russian tracking stations in Yevpa-toria (Crimea) and Bear Lakes (Moscow Region). The satellite revolves in an orbit not used in experiments before. "It is quite elongated," Nikolai Kardashev, Director of the Astrospace Center of the Lebedev Institute, explained at a news conference at Baikonur. The radio telescope now approaches the Earth (to 50,000-70,000 km), now it moves away from it to about 350,000 km2. This is necessary so as to better detail the images of radio luminescent objects and to determine their positions and, if possible, their dynamics.

The work proceeds as follows: a "Radioastron" signal beam is sent to a distant point of the universe along with a similar beam signaled from a ground telescope. The

стр. 34

reflected signals are picked by the antenna, and then the data are generalized into an overall picture. Such pairs of astronomical instruments (spacecraft--ground-based telescope) combined into an interferometric system allow, thanks to the satellite orbit placed at a staggering distance, to produce razor-sharp pictures--up to the 8 millionths of fractions of a second of arc (the naked human eye cannot discern even a single fraction). In short, it is possible to pick radiation from microobjects whose angular dimensions might be compared to a bean placed on the lunar surface. The "Radioastron" predecessor-- the world-famous telescope "Hubble" (project of NASA and the European Space Agency), which has been orbiting alone around the earth since 1990, does not have such capabilities. Indeed, "Hubble" is capable of studying very distant objects, Kardashev explains, but its angular resolution and image details are insignificant. "We will obtain a picture hundreds of thousands of times better," he said.

In 5 years of the orbiter's full-time astrophysicists are planning to collect data for the next generation of a system of celestial coordinates, to measure the effects predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, and develop new high-precision methods for pinpointing spacecraft orbits and their evolution.

Of particular interest are distant "points"--"dark matter" and "dark energy", neutron and quark stars, interstellar plasma clouds, masers, pulsars, quasars;* as many as 20 or 30 objects giving off powerful radio emissions and scattered throughout the universe have been chosen for study.

Astrophysicists also hope to learn more about super massive "black holes", the most mysterious structures in the center of our galaxy and beyond. So far it has not been possible to investigate the structure of this physical phenomenon from the Earth. "Radioastron" is facing

See: A. Cherepashchuk, "Mysteries of the Universe", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2011.--Ed.

стр. 35

truly breakthrough goals. One of the first is to look into the center of the galaxy M-87, into the Virgo cluster, which is located about 18 Mpc from us (59 million light years). Hidden there, behind a "spot" of emitting plasma, is a "black hole" closest to us. "An angular solution--a millionth of a second--will be enough to see the horizon of a super massive "black hole,"--notes Igor Novikov, deputy director of the Astrospace Center and RAS corresponding member, in an interview to the newspaper Troitsky Variant (Troitsk, Moscow Region).--"This is the most interesting target. One can actually see the shadow of the black hole on the background of the accretion disk. By the look of the shadow we will judge if it is a real black hole and if there is a horizon over there. This is the only method to verify the predictions of the general theory of relativity about their very existence."

"Radioastron" will also be able to answer other questions, like: What triggers powerful explosions in the universe? Why do they occur? Are they dangerous to humanity? And if it is a directional explosion, what will happen to humankind?

According to the Science Information Agency "FIAN-Inform", on September 27, 2011, when the apparatus was 260,000 km away from Earth, the Astrospace Center conducted observations of a space object--the remnants of Cassiopeia A supernova. The detection of "the first light", as astrophysicists put it, with the use of radiometers operating on 92 and 18 cm wavelengths, was successful. Commenting on the event, M. Sc. Yuri Kovalev, a senior researcher, notes: "For astronomers, "the first light" is certainly a cause for celebration. In fact, this moment marks the birth of the new telescope... The scanning came off fine, the guidance system is working remarkably well, the useful (collecting) area of the telescope turned out to be even larger than we had expected. Our next step is to see Cassiopeia A in the 6 and 1.3 cm ranges."

In other words, the first months of the Space Observatory at work have confirmed its high sensitivity, and so exciting results can be expected soon. "I think the next 10-15 years will change our understanding of the universe,"--says Dr. Sergei Likhachev heading the Department of Astrophysical Data Management at the Astrospace Center in an interview to "Vesti", a Russian TV channel--"Surely 'Radioastron' missions... promote Astrophysics progress toward these revolutionary events."

Illustrations taken from the "Bulletin of the Lavochkin NPO" (No. 3, 2011) and other Internet sources


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Marina KHALIZEVA, "RADIOASTRON" BRINGS DEEP SPACE CLOSER // Minsk: Belarusian Electronic Library (BIBLIOTEKA.BY). Updated: 30.09.2021. URL: https://biblioteka.by/m/articles/view/-RADIOASTRON-BRINGS-DEEP-SPACE-CLOSER (date of access: 27.10.2021).

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