Russia plans to take German telescope hostage

Dmitriy Rogozin starts acting up again with a rowdy declaration as he likes them; today, the German eROSITA telescope is in the line of sight.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is starting to act up again. According to an interview on Russian television reported by Deutsche Welle, its sulphurous director Dmitry Rogozin recently announced his intention to launch a showdown with Germany around the Spektr-RG satellite.

It is a somewhat special orbital observatory, since it is part of a cooperation between the two countries. This two-headed satellite is equipped with two black hole hunting telescopes that could be described as Siamese. On the one hand, we have eROSITA, the darling of German researchers at the prestigious Max Planck Institute. On the other, we find its Russian counterpart, called ART-XC.

Last February, the German contingent had unilaterally decided to put its eROSITA on standby; a gesture motivated by the geopolitical context. It was indeed a direct reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last February, the German Minister of Research and Education announced the suspension of scientific cooperation between the two countries until the end of the crisis.

A situation that poses a problem on the side of Roscosmos. the Russian agency continued to use its ART-XC, but since the two telescopes operate in tandem by providing additional information, the shutdown of eROSITA necessarily generates a loss of scientific earnings.

Dmitriy Rogozin has a sense of the formula, but there is a huge gap between his candid statements and the reality on the ground. © Роскосмос – WikiCommons

eROSITA has a lot to worry about

That was all it took to convince Rogozin to return to center stage. The senior Russian official split a remarkable projection as he has the secret. During a speech on Russian television, he simply threw diplomacy out the window by announcing his intention to seize control of eROSITA under the nose and beard of the Germans.

The people who took the decision to shut down the telescope do not have the moral right to interrupt this research for humanity just because of their pro-fascist vision which is close to that of our enemies.”, he attacks.

I gave instructions to start work on restoring the operations of the German telescope on board the Spektr-RG to work in cooperation with the Russian telescope”, proudly asserts the interested party. “Despite German demands to shut down one of Spektr-RG’s telescopes, Russian specialists insist that it continue its work”, he engages.

This last statement, however, needs to be qualified. Especially when you read the words of Lev Zeleny, the scientific director of the prestigious Institute for Space Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Rogozin is already well known for wishful thinking; and according to Zeleny, the director was once again caught in the act of outright lying.

Inaccurate statements at best

Our institute – all scientists – strongly opposes this proposal“, says the latter in the Russian newspaper Gazeta. An opposition based on criteria “policies and techniques”. First, he is concerned that the Russian authorities are simply not trained in the use of eROSITA. A handling error could therefore cause irreversible damage to this technological jewel.

It’s a superb device, absolutely world class, and has given us a lot of data already”, explains Rashid Sunyaev, global supervisor of Spektr-RG interviewed by Interfax. “We all dream of seeing him return to work. But it’s an extremely complex device, and if we decide to ignore our agreements with our partners and restart it ourselves…it could just ruin it.”, he is alarmed.

After the ISS, it is eROSITA which serves as a lever to raise the ego of the director of Roscosmos. © Norbert Kowalczyk

Rogozin in the text

It’s hard to know what Rogozin really has in mind with these new belligerent declarations. Remember that this great supporter of Putin, whose institution never deviates from the Kremlin line, has never had his tongue in his pocket; he even found a new vocation as a communicator since the beginning of the war.

In a few months, he multiplied the often sarcastic and far from reality declarations, even downright lunar in certain cases. We often find condescending rhetoric directly inherited from the Soviet era, when Russian aerospace largely dominated the discipline.

In March, for example, he had suggested to American officials to join the ISS “in a flying broom” after announcing the cessation of rocket engine deliveries (see our article). He also had affirmed that the fate of the ISS depended exclusively on the goodwill of the Russians, suggesting that the latter could let the station crash if the other countries were not conciliatory… and so on.

The problem is that Roscosmos is no longer at the top of its game, far from it. The agency is even far from its heyday and technologically lagging behind. A difficult situation to assume for a manager necessarily nostalgic for this era, and which could encourage him to want to show his muscles to heal a bruised ego… unless he is simply not aware of the enormous gap that exists. between his assertions and reality.

It therefore only remains to hope that Rogozin will hear the protests of the scientists who are opposed to this maneuver. Both sides have every interest in finding common ground to avoid sacrificing scientific progress on the altar of senseless conflict.

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