Roscosmos Launches Advanced Spektr-RG Telescope As Russia Aims to Expand Its Space Powers

Russia has launched an advanced X-ray telescope into space as part of six-and-a-half-year mission expected to map around 100,000 galaxy clusters—the largest known gravitationally bound structures in the universe—and three million supermassive black holes.

Known as Spektr-RG, the observatory—which was jointly developed by the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Germany—is a replacement for its predecessor Spektr-R, which operators lost control over earlier this year.

The new observatory—which weighs more than 3 tons—took off aboard a Proton-M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday, AFP reported. Spektr-RG is now moving towards its final destination—a point 900,000 miles above our planet—which it will reach in around three months.

This so-called "Lagrange point" is one of several locations in space where "the gravitational forces of a two-body system like the sun and the Earth produce enhanced regions of attraction and repulsion," according to NASA. "These can be used by spacecraft to reduce fuel consumption needed to remain in position."

Roscosmos originally planned to launch Spektr-RG on June 21, however, a battery problem led to two postponements.

As well as mapping the sky, the new observatory will collect data on black holes, neutron stars and magnetic fields in space, which scientists hope could cast new light on the universe's evolution and the nature of dark energy—the mysterious force or substance that scientists use to explain the accelerating expansion rate of the universe.

"The observation of space by Spektr-RG will mark a new stage in X-ray astronomy, whose history goes back more than 55 years," the Russian space agency said in a statement. It will enable "the year-round observation of practically the whole celestial sphere."

The latest launch will be seen as an attempt to restore Russian space power following a series of notable setbacks since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—a process which was followed by significant budget cuts for Roscosmos, The Associated Press reported.

Spektr-RG was initially proposed in the late 1980s in an attempt to rival NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. However, a lack of funding meant the project was shelved. Nevertheless, plans for the observatory were revived in the early 2000s.

"There have been many ups and downs," Peter Predehl, leader of a team at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany—which was involved in the observatory's construction—told Science Magazine. "Whenever we thought we were out of the woods, a new one came along."

Despite recent setbacks for the Roscosmos, Russia is currently the only nation with the capabilities to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The Space Shuttle used to provide this service but was retired in 2011.

Proton-M rocket
A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying Spain's satellite Amazonas-5 blasts off from the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early on September 12, 2017 local time. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images