Russia, Uzbekistan Resume Construction
of Radio Astronomy Observatory

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti, by Yuri Zaitsev, Expert, the Institute of Space Research) – Scientists long ago learned to integrate ground-based radio telescopes into so-called interferometers, whose resolution is equivalent to that of a radio telescope with the antenna diameter equal to the distance between telescopes. The bigger the distance between telescopes (the system’s base), the higher its resolution. The method was first suggested and substantiated by scientists of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the 1960s.

But the base of interferometers on the earth is limited to the size of the planet (the maximum possible size equals the equator). Accordingly, in the late 1970s the academic Institute of Space Research suggested creating a ground/space radio interferometric system for astrophysical studies with a super-high resolution: a spacecraft with a radio telescope orbiting the earth works in conjunction with ground-based telescopes.

The first step towards this goal was made in 1979, when a space telescope with a 10m antenna was erected on the Salyut-6 space station. The station was placed in a relatively low orbit, which did not help increase the base, so the experiment was held to improve observation methods.

At the same time, scientists prepared for the RadioAstron project, which entailed placing a radio telescope nearly 400,000km in space that would expand the base of the interferometric system to hundreds of thousands of kilometers. Such a telescope would see in detail the smallest radio sources in the universe, in particular, quasars, the active galactics nuclei, and space around black holes, helping scientists to understand many cosmological events that cannot be explained now, and to try to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

The ground-turning ceremony for the project was held at the Sufa Plateau in Uzbekistan. A radio astronomical observatory, its main instrument being the 70m radio telescope working jointly with a space-based counterpart, was to be built in a picturesque region of the republic at the height of over 2,000m above sea level.

Twenty years have passed since then. The Soviet Union crumbled, allocations to space research were cut, and the Sufa project was mothballed.

The Federal space program of Russia defines the RadioAstron project as a priority, and work under it is proceeding at full speed. The spacecraft bearing the radio telescope is to be orbited in 2006. Thank God, there are people in Russia and Uzbekistan who are convinced that the construction of the ground-based counterpart must be completed, too. Though nearly all major ground-based radio astronomic observatories of the US, Germany, Australia and other countries will work jointly with the Russian space-based radio telescope, the telescope in Uzbekistan is located so cleverly that it will make a substantial contribution to observations.

Following bilateral meetings at the government level and meetings of the joint inter-governmental commission, the RT-70 project was given a lease on life in 2000. "We hope it will not stop now," said Shukhrat Egamberdiyev, director of the Center of Space Research of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences and the Uzbek project director.

In the past three years, scientists, designers and engineers from Russia, which is the main designer and financier of the project, have thoroughly inspected the project’s documents. "It is good that the observatory has not been built," said Nikolai Artemenko, department head at the AstroSpace Center of the academic Physics Institute. "Its fate after the disintegration of the Soviet Union would have been dramatic. Political, economic, social and research-technical conditions have changed drastically. In the past, the complex was to have been a fully autonomous system with a staff of over 200 scientists and maintenance personnel. It has become obvious now that work at the telescope should be divided into shifts, with 10-12 scientists and a maintenance staff of about 20."

The scientific concept of the observatory has been overhauled too. In the past, observations were to be held in a broad range of bands, while now the scientists plan to study only the most information-rich and the least studied millimeter band. While new state borders were marked and Soviet property was divided in the former Soviet Union, the US has commissioned a 100m radio telescope. It will be extremely difficult for the 70m telescope, even if located in the nearly ideal conditions of Sufa, to rival the US counterpart. But in the millimeter band it will be not only the largest but also the most precise in the world. This called for changing the architectural design, though attempts are being made to use as much of what has been built as possible, such as the 1,800 antenna panels that have been delivered to Sufa.

The design of the project, even though it is more than 20 years old, strikes one as highly inordinate: it looks like the future settlements on the Moon or Mars. But systems must be duplicated there to increase reliability, which we do not need on the earth. The modern research instruments, computer equipment and communications systems have become sufficiently reliable thanks to the use of the latest technologies. As a result of the review, spending on the construction has been slashed from $26 to $19 million.

"Not only scientists in Uzbekistan and Russia need the observatory in Sufa," said the learned secretary of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. "Such projects attract specialists from all over the world, which is why the observatory has the status of an international project. And its construction amounts to a direct Russian investment in Uzbekistan and its science."