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Russian telescope launch pulls national space program out of black hole

The Spektr-R, a space telescope that was put in orbit Monday, is just one of the ways the Russian space program is getting back on track.

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Russian scientists are jubilant at news that the Spektr-R, a powerful space telescope conceived in the depths of the cold war, was finally lofted into orbit aboard a Zenit rocket Monday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Once it is fully operational, the new radio telescope will sync up with ground-based observatories to form the biggest telescope ever built. It will be known as RadioAstron, with a "dish" spanning 30 times the Earth's diameter. Experts say it will be able to deliver images from the remote corners of the universe at 10,000 times the resolution of the US Hubble Space Telescope.

"We've been waiting for this day for such a long time," says Nikolai Podorvanyuk, a researcher at the official Institute of Astronomy in Moscow.

"It's been planned since the 1980s, but has repeatedly fallen through for a variety of reasons. But now it's here, and we're bracing for all the new information it's going to deliver, especially about black holes," he says.

The space-based component is actually a small radio telescope, with a 10-meter dish that's far smaller than Earth-based radio telescopes, planted in an elliptical orbit about 340,000 kilometers (more than 212,000 miles) from Earth. But when its signals are combined with those of ground-based radio telescopes through a process known as interferometry, it effectively becomes one single telescope with a "dish" as large as the distance between its components, which will be able to deliver unprecedented pictures of mysterious cosmic phenomenon, such as quasars, pulsars, and supernovae.

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