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Scientists Confirm 'First Light' From Russian-German Deep-Space Telescope


The first composite images from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics' eROSITA show a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, and two interacting clusters of galaxies at a distance of about 800 million light years from Earth.

A joint Russian-German mission to map the universe from deep space has shared its first X-ray images from hundreds of millions of light years away following a three-month journey to its orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

The Spektr-RG observatory that houses the German eROSITA and Russian ART-XC X-ray telescopes should spend at least the next four years producing seamless images of the cosmos that stretch back billions of years.

Some of the first pictures received on October 22 of a massive expanse of the sky showed the wildly fluctuating intensity of a supermassive black hole, a rapidly pulsating neutron star, confirmed interaction between a galactic cluster pair, and a remnant from an exploding star, or supernova.

Scientists hope Spektr-RG's images help unravel mysteries about the origins and future of the universe.

"We are now in an orbit around L2" -- a reference to the "Logarian point" that will shield the telescopes from the sun -- "[and] all seven cameras of eROSITA are working," Peter Predehl, head of the eROSITA team, told RFE/RL on October 22.

He said his team had seen the first scientific data -- or "first light" -- confirming an end to the commissioning phase on October 18, more than three months after a Russian Proton-M rocket took off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan with it and the ART-SC housed on a Navigator spacecraft.

Russian and German officials unveiled the images during coordinated press conferences in Moscow and at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics' facilities outside Munich on October 22.

A source involved in the project told RFE/RL that the Russian Navigator platform and ART-XC telescope also both appeared to be working well.

The Spektr-RG's uniqueness -- partly the result of a Soviet-era idea to use "hard" X-rays to chart the cosmos -- lies in its sensitivity to high-energy X-rays and its ability to observe the entire sky at once.

'Hard' X-Rays

Such "hard" X-rays should help spot millions of supergiant black holes, track the speed and movement of galaxy clusters, investigate binary stars, and trace remnants of supernovas.

Tashkent-born astrophysicist Rashid Sunyaev, one of the men who proposed the X-ray mapping project to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, is the lead Russian scientist on the Spektr-RG.

Russia hopes that success with the observatory boosts its prestige in space exploration and astrophysics after a handful of setbacks in recent years, including the loss in January of a Spektr-R mission to map radio waves partway through its planned five-year lifespan.

The Germans turned to Russia's Roskosmos space agency in 2009 for help getting their telescope aloft.

Spektr-RG brings together Roskosmos, Germany's national aerospace center, known as DLR, and scientific institutes and universities in both countries.

The Russians agreed, although they attached conditions that effectively split the sky into a German half and a Russian half for the purpose of scientific publication.

Predehl said earlier reports suggesting a possibly defective power supply during the startup of eROSITA's seven cameras had proved unfounded.

"There was never a defect, neither in the power system nor somewhere else in electronics," he told RFE/RL. "We had a few 'events' which we have not understood but considered to be potentially harming the instrument. This is gone."

Russian scientists reportedly hope to launch another satellite, known as Spektr-UF, in 2025 to observe visible and ultraviolet light, according to

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering the Balkans, the Transcaucasus, and science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for Reuters, Oxford Analytica, Acquisitions Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.