The telescope’s main component, a 10-metre radio dish aboard the spacecraft Spectr-R, launched in July to an oblong orbit that extends between 10,000 and more than 300,000 kilometres from Earth.
By coordinating observations with radio telescopes on Earth in a technique called interferometry, the telescope can make observations as sharp as a single dish spanning the entire distance between the two farthest dishes. When Spectr-R is at its farthest from Earth, the system acts like one enormous telescope about 30 times as wide as our planet, boasting about 10,000 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.
In its first observation on 15 November, Spektr-R was about 100,000 kilometres above Earth. The space telescope linked up with three 32-metre antennas in Russia’s QUASAR Network, a 70-metre antenna in Evpatoria, Ukraine, and the 100-metre Effelsberg telescope in Germany to target a bright, distant galaxy called 0212+735.
Over its five-year mission, RadioAstron will take detailed looks at objects such as the black hole at the centre of nearby galaxy M87, nascent planetary systems and neutron stars. It will detect radio waves emitted by water masers, clouds of water molecules in the discs of galaxies, which could help measure how far those galaxies are from Earth. That in turn could help study the expansion of the universe and dark energy.