Russia Has Lost Control of Its Only Space Telescope

Mission leads are trying to reestablish contact with the Spektr-R satellite, which carries a 10-meter wide radio dish.

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Jan 14 2019, 9:21pm

Concept art of Spektr-R. Image: © Astro Space Center of Lebedev Physical Institute

Russia has lost control over its Spektr-R satellite, which carries the only telescope the nation currently has deployed in space.

While Spektr-R is still transmitting scientific information and orbiting normally, it stopped responding to commands from mission leads in Russia on Friday, the BBC reported.

Yuri Kovalev, head of research for the Spektr-R mission, told Russian news agency TASS that the malfunction occurred when a signal from the ground failed to switch on a transmitter. It’s unclear what caused the glitch, but TASS reported on Monday that one speculative explanation could be damage from cosmic radiation in the spacecraft’s electronics system.

The fact that the satellite is still sending out messages about its activities suggests that the scientific payload and operations has been unaffected by the communications malfunction.

"This means that our satellite is alive, that it has power on board, the scientific equipment continues to work, and there is still a point in trying to establish contact with it," Kovalev said. Efforts to communicate with the spacecraft continued on Monday.

Launched in July 2011, Spektr-R is equipped with a 10-meter-wide radio antennae designed to pick up radio emissions in the Milky Way, and beyond.

Read More: Russia Space Chief Suggests International Space Station Leak Could Be Sabotage

As a component of the international RadioAstron program headquartered in Moscow, the satellite has enabled scientists to study exotic objects like quasars and black holes located billions of light years from Earth. Because the spacecraft’s highly elliptical orbit takes it some 300,000 kilometers from ground radio telescopes on our planet, it can help produce extremely high-resolution images.

The mission was expected to last five years, so it has surpassed its projected lifespan. While it will be a setback if contact with the satellite is permanently lost, Russia is planning to team up with German scientists to launch a successor satellite, called Spektr RG, later in 2019.

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