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First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov warned Roskosmos (Russian Space Agency)
First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov warned Roskosmos (Russian Space Agency) against becoming a "space taxi." This is a real threat and it may become reality this year.

For many years, Russia has not launched spacecraft in the interests of fundamental science. The federal program's plans to put them in orbit in 2006 and 2007 were not carried out. The Spektr-Radioastron astrophysical observatory was supposed to go into orbit this year, but the launch was rescheduled. There is little hope that the situation will improve this year.

Summing up the results of the past year, Georgy Polishchuk, general designer and director general of the Lavochkin Research-and-Production Association that has developed all major Russian spacecraft, said: "The construction of the observatory is nearing completion. We are planning to deliver it to the testing grounds in January 2008 and to send it to Baikonur in October."

Regrettably, its testing did not start in January. There is every indication that its launch will be rescheduled for 2009. But let's first recall what this project is all about.

Some 40 years ago, Russian scientists Nikolai Kardashev, Leonid Matveyenko, and Gennady Sholomitsky came up with the idea of a space interferometer. It is based on the phenomenon of interferometry - a capacity of different waves (sound, light, or radio waves) that have the same phase to add to each other, or subtract if the phase is opposite. If we position two or more telescopes far away from each other and start watching the same celestial object, the combination of their signals causes interference that may sharply enhance the resolution capacity of the whole system. It becomes as high as if the observations were conducted by a telescope with an antenna diameter equal to the distance between the telescopes.

This idea was first tested on Earth with the participation of the world's major radio observatories. It was like using a radio telescope close to the Earth's diameter in size. A decision was made to launch a radio telescope into space. In the 1980s, the construction of major ground-based instruments that were supposed to work together with the telescope in space was launched in Uzbekistan (Sufa plateau). Radical changes in the Soviet Union delayed the project's implementation by two decades. The Radioastron observatory was part of the federal space program for 2001-2005, but the project was not carried out. It is a priority astrophysical project in the program for 2006-2015, but the observatory was not launched in either 2006 or in 2007.

The observatory consists of a universal Navigator platform developed by the Lavochkin Association, and a space radiotelescope that is being built by Russian and foreign scientific organizations. In Russia, this is primarily the Astro Space Center at the Physics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Academician Kardashev is in charge of the project.

Under the project, a 10 meter-long radiotelescope will be put into a high-elliptical orbit with an apogee of about 350,000 km (220,000 miles). Together with ground-based instruments, it is supposed to form a giant interferometer with a diameter almost equal to the distance between the Earth and the moon. Its angular resolution will be 40 times greater than that of a ground-based radio interferometer, and 20 million times greater that that of the human eye.

The project is designed to study super-massive black holes in the nuclei of close and remote galaxies, black holes in the stellar masses in our galaxy, neutron and probably quark stars, star and planet formation areas, and clouds of inter-stellar plasma. There is a list of several hundred items to watch. By the time of the observatory's launch, scientists are planning to increase this list to 500 objects.

The project may clear up some aspects of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The interest in this problem is enhanced by recent discoveries in astrophysics and cosmology. Some scientists believe that extra-terrestrial intelligence is somehow linked with concealed energy, dark matter, worm holes and a possibility of inventing a time machine.

Needless to say, it is too early to speak about direct contacts with aliens. A space-based telescope will have to have a mirror antenna diameter of several kilometers in order to detect radio signals from the closest stars that would be similar to ours. It will take decades to make such a telescope. So, the little green men will have to wait. For the time being, we have been unable to develop and launch a much simpler project.

As was mentioned earlier, the Lavochkin Association has given priority to the construction of the Navigator space platform. A top level decision was made that the Navigator will be launched for the first time by the Elektro-L weather satellite (international reporting name GOMS-2). A decision on the future of Radioastron and other space projects involving the platform will be made only after the satellite is tested. Only two years ago, the developers reported that the work on the satellite was on schedule, but it was not launched either in 2006 or in 2007. Today, they are planning to put it into orbit in November 2008.

Delays with Radioastron have caused many problems. At one time, many foreign organizations were involved in it. They took part in the development of the on-board research systems and, most importantly, its ground-based component. For example, Americans built data receiving centers in different parts of the world. Later on, they were used for other studies, for instance, for research by Japan. It is not clear whether they can be used for Radioastron. Nobody knows what will happen with the only domestic data receiving center in Medvezhye Lakes.

Yury Zaitsev is an academic adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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