The Russian space agency is scrambling to finish a high-tech orbital telescope designed to peer into the depths of space at distant stars, seeing everything in ultraviolet wavelengths that are invisible to the naked eye.
The 50-foot-long Spektr UF—in development since the late 1980s—could become the world’s only large, sophisticated ultraviolet space telescope if and when it finally achieves orbit, an event Moscow’s space administrators have tentatively scheduled for 2021.
That’s because the current orbital telescope with ultraviolet capability—America’s 26-year-old Hubble—could decommission as early as 2020 and fall to Earth in a carefully orchestrated “controlled descent.”
A virtual Russian monopoly of humanity’s ultraviolet astronomy could pose a problem for scientists working outside Moscow’s control. Unlike the United States, Russia does not have a policy of freely sharing astronomical data. If Spektr UF becomes Earth’s sole set of ultraviolet space eyes, scientists outside Russia striving to understand the interstellar origins of human life could be partially cut off from the latest findings in their field.
And there’s an even worse potential outcome. If the Spektr UF project fails and Hubble plummets to Earth in four or five years, all scientists everywhere might be unable to continue their exploration of humanity’s origins.
The UV space telescope is one of the “classic astronomical instruments” alongside infrared, microwave, and visible-light telescopes, according to Anatoly Zak, an historian specializing in the Russian space program and the author of Russia in Space.
Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has invested heavily in all these kinds of telescopes, as has the United States and, to a lesser extent, European nations. The infrared and visible-light telescopes have military uses—point them toward Earth instead of away from it and you’ve got yourself a spy satellite.
By contrast, ultraviolet telescopes are strictly scientific. Earth’s atmosphere blocks most ultraviolet light, so UV sensors can see anything only when they’re looking out into space.
And what they see out there is nothing less than the source of all life as we know it.
Stars emit much of their light in the ultraviolet wavelengths, which lie between x-rays and visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum. Detecting and analyzing that light can tell us a lot about a star’s origins, character, and fate—and can offer clues about humanity’s own beginning.
“Astronomers have known for 50 or 60 years that all heavy elements in the universe—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, all the things that make up our bodies—all of them come from stars,” astronomer Jason Tumlinson told The Daily Beast. Tumlinson works for the Space Telescope Science Institute, a Baltimore-based organization that partners with NASA to analyze data from Hubble.
Combining their most recent findings, Tumlinson said he and other astronomers now believe that those heavy elements actually journeyed beyond the Milky Way galaxy—our own—before returning to seed Earth and ultimately give rise to the human race and other life.
They came to that conclusion because Hubble showed them patterns in distant starlight—all in ultraviolet. But Hubble isn’t primarily a UV sensor. That capability is secondary to its visible-light and infrared functions. And Hubble won’t last forever. Its orbit is stable into the 2030s, but its mechanical parts are wearing out. NASA’s best guess is that the telescope could function into the 2020s, given adequate funding for maintenance.
The earliest generations of ultraviolet telescopes have all been decommissioned, and many newer UV space sensors are stuck in the planning stage. NASA has devoted most of its own resources to developing new visible-light and infrared telescopes, effectively ceding the ultraviolet spectrum to the Russians once Hubble ceases operations—a move Tumlison called “a bit of an oversight.”
But that assumed Spektr UF actually achieved orbit as planned. In 2014 and 2015, however, the Spektr UF program nearly fell apart. Russia’s economy is shrinking, and that means deep budget cuts for most agencies that aren’t fighting wars in Ukraine and Syria. In late 2015, Zak and other observers expected the Russian space agency to ax Spektr UF, potentially saving billions of dollars over the next couple decades.
But when the agency announced its new spending plan back in December, Spektr UF survived with a $127 million budget line through 2025—and got a 2021 launch date.
Zak said he was surprised the telescope program endured not just because of its cost but because Russia’s own actions in the world had so badly undermined Spektr UF’s development and piled uncertainty on top of risk. As the project evolved through the 1990s and early 2000s, it gained significant support from the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany...and Ukraine.
But Kiev withdrew its support after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in early 2014. Cut off from Ukraine’s high-tech industries and unable to buy high-tech components locally, Moscow had contracted with a British firm for the sophisticated detectors that, applied to the telescope’s focal plane, register the ultraviolet radiation that passes through the telescope’s specially treated lenses.
But the British firm sourced components from American companies. And after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the U.S. State Department barred those companies from selling advanced technology to Russia, even indirectly—and even though the technology has only peaceful applications.
Madrid and Berlin have allowed their scientists to continue collaborating with their Russian counterparts on the research aspects of the Spektr UF program, but that doesn’t mean European countries are willing to sell high-tech components to Russia. Zak said Russia might be able to buy detectors from China or even develop them locally.
But it could take years for Chinese or Russian firms to refine the parts, possibly delaying Spektr UF’s deployment past 2021. And even then, the make-do detectors probably won’t match the sensitivity of American models. “That technology is very, very tricky,” Tumlinson pointed out.
In any event, Spektr UF seems likely to survive and eventually reach orbit, potentially taking Hubble’s place just as the American telescope begins its fiery, fatal descent back to Earth. Barring the rapid development by China, Europe, or another space power of an alternative UV telescope, the Russian government will control access to most new information on the ultraviolet lives of the stars.
Tumlinson speculated that the German and Spanish investigators using Spektr UF might share their data, but he doesn’t expect the Russians to do the same. To safeguard America’s ultraviolet astronomy, he said NASA could extend Hubble’s operations or firm up what are, at present, vague plans for a new ultraviolet telescope for service in the 2030s.
When it comes to the ultraviolet telescope, the future is unclear. What is clear is the importance of this complex, pricey, politically divisive sensor. “It gives us access to a lot of astrophysical information carried by ultraviolet photons that we can’t get any other way,” Tumlinson said.