Spektr-R Update

The huge space radio telescope Spektr-R, or Radioastron, operated by the Astro Space Centre of the Lebedev Physical Institute, has been operating successfully since July of 2011, performing very long baseline inferometry (VLBI) with suitably equipped sites on the Earth.  Since its orbit goes between 10,000 and 350,000 kilometers, this gives a fantastically long baseline.  But its not been without its problems.  The perigee of its highly eccentric orbit had slipped down to about 7,500 km by last year, low enough to start being affected by lumpiness in Earth’s gravity field, making it difficult to predict the observatory’s orbit over time.  It was no longer certain that it would remain in orbit past 2018, and worse, it looked like a series of passes through Earth’s shadow (eclipse season) would be of unsurvivable duration.  So the team devised a series of engine burns that will raise the probe enough to survive well into the next decade — and possibly even improve its position through a series of lunar gravity assists.  The spacecraft flies out past the orbit of the Moon, so this isn’t outlandish.  But fears of error due to the Moon’s notoriously fickle gravitation field led this to be cancelled.  A more modest orbital change is now planned, but one which will only consume about 10% of the remaining propellant (and it has about 85% left from its original supply).  The primary maneuver under this new plan was completed on July 16 and took 290.3 seconds.  Additional burns will be performed after the resulting trajectory is carefully analyzed, and Radioastron will remain in service for years to come.

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