|RUSSIA’S MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti)
On October 3, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the
Nobel Prize in physics had been awarded to two U.S. astrophysicists for
their landmark research on the Big Bang theory and the origins of galaxies
and stars. One of the recipients, George F. Smoot, has a dual appointment
with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of
California at Berkeley physics department. The other, John C. Mather from
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, also earned his doctorate in physics
at UC Berkeley.
The prize was given for a 1992 discovery by NASA’s Cosmic Background
Explorer (COBE) satellite team that ushered in a new era of being able to
take precise measurements of the first moments of the Universe, as well as
for the discovery of small temperature variations in the “cosmic
microwave background radiation” that fills space.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said both men had confirmed the main
postulates of the Big Bang theory formulated in the 1940s and the 1950s by
George Gamow, who had emigrated from the U.S.S.R. in 1934.
Gamow suggested the Hot Big Bang model, applying the ideas of nuclear
physics and thermodynamics to cosmology. According to his model, time,
space and matter did not exist until about 13.7 billion years ago. They
appeared after the explosion of an infinitely dense point with a radius of
10-33 cm containing tremendous heat energy (the so-called singular state)
and all information on the future Universe.
According to Gamow, the early Universe consisted of a heterogeneous and
extremely hot substance. At that time, cosmic microwave background
radiation, or CMB, spread evenly throughout space.
If the theory of a hot early Universe is correct, then the modern Universe
must still contain traces of CMB.
As the Universe expanded, the temperature of its matter and energy
gradually subsided. It is thought that CMB must now have a temperature of
only five to six degrees Kelvin, or just over 2,700 degrees Celsius.
Many scientists regarded CMB as a figment of Gamow’s imagination.
However, after the existence of this phenomenon was confirmed in 1964 by
U.S. radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, the scientific
community gave its seal of approval to the theory. In 1978, Penzias and
Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their landmark discovery.
Unfortunately, Gamow never got the Nobel Prize for his outstanding
The discovery of CMB confirmed the Hot Big Bang theory. Scientists then
tried to discover the radiation’s anisotropy, i.e. extremely small
fluctuations in its average temperature depending on its direction as the
Universe moves through the CMB.
Soviet scientists had long been using the world’s largest
radio-telescope, the RATAN-600, to conduct such research as part of the
Kholod (Cold) project. However, their equipment was two to three times
less sensitive than required and could not therefore detect CMB.
In 1983, the Soviet Union conducted the Relikt-1 experiment aboard the
Prognoz-9 satellite in order to pinpoint CMB for the first time in
history. This experiment was prepared by the Space Research Institute of
the Soviet Academy of Sciences and supervised by Dr. Igor Strukov.
The Prognoz-9, featuring an 8 mm band radiometer with an unprecedentedly
high sensitivity of 35 microkelvin per second, was placed into a high
apogee orbit with a 400,000 km semi-axis.
The radiometer comprised two megaphone antennas, each with a 50%
directional pattern. Both antennas formed a 900-degree angle and the same
It took the satellite two minutes to rotate along one of its axes. The
mainframe megaphone antenna was directed along the rotating axis and
received radio signals from a preset celestial point. The second antenna
conducted a complete scan of the ecliptic plane perpendicular to the
rotating axis in two minutes.
Consequently, each element of this ecliptic was scanned several thousand
times in a week.
The satellite then changed its spatial orientation and scanned another
ecliptic. It took six months to scan the entire celestial sphere.
Computerized data processing and modeling methods were slow at that time.
Moreover, the radiometer could not conduct multi-band astronomical
A multi-band experiment would have provided an insight into anisotropy,
whereas the single-band experiment left a lot of room for speculation.
A preliminary assessment of a radio signal pattern based on Relikt-1 data
produced negative results; however, the temperature variation, i.e.
anisotropy of CMB was confirmed many years later.
The results of the Relikt-1 project were reported at international
symposia and invariably won acclaim from experts. The heat radiation map
of the Universe served as the emblem of the 1989 international conference
“The Cosmic Wave Background: 25 Years Later” in L’Aquila, Italy.
In 1986, the Space Research Institute’s Academic Council decided to
study the anisotropy of CMB as part of the Relikt-2 project. The
sensitivity of the equipment had increased fivefold by that time and
exceeded that of the Relikt-1 satellite 20 times over.
The Libris spacecraft was scheduled to lift off in 1993-1994, but the
launch never took place because of the Soviet Union’s break-up and lack
The discovery of anisotropy by the Relikt-1 spacecraft was first reported
officially in January 1992 at the Moscow astrophysical seminar.
Several months later, George F. Smoot, the head of a similar U.S. project,
told a news conference about the discovery of CMB anisotropy by the COBE
satellite. The mass media reported this as the main science news of the
The project’s co-head, John C. Mather, told Newsweek magazine that he
knew a lot about the Relikt project, which had been conducted long before
the launch of the COBE. He said the project had been one of the first
attempts to discover CMB anisotropy, and that to the best of his
knowledge, it had proved successful. Mather then congratulated those
involved in the Relikt experiment.
He told Newsweek that many researchers had carried out similar projects at
that time. He and his team fully acknowledged the achievements of their
predecessors, who had obtained many valuable results, but their own
results were better.
All this is fine, but according to the Nobel Committee’s official
statement, the prize went to Smoot and Mather for the experimental
discovery of the correlation between CMB and its anisotropy. No matter
what anyone else may say, Russian scientists were really the first to
discover this phenomenon.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has not been entirely politically
correct in declining to analyze all aspects of this issue.
Alas, the latest U.S. PR blitz has once again eclipsed the findings of
Russian physicists and underscored the importance of secondary
achievements by their American counterparts.
Russian scientists, however, share the blame for this misunderstanding. It
is easy to talk about cash-strapped national space programs, but the
Americans had also faced similar problems. A U.S. space shuttle was to
have launched a probe to measure CMB parameters. However, the project’s
future looked bleak indeed after the 1986 Challenger disaster.
The COBE project’s managers had a hard time persuading their superiors
to provide funds and a specialized launch vehicle, but in the end they
succeeded. Russian scientists, however, were unable to overcome government
and academic red tape.
Moreover, Igor Strukov said he was unpleasantly surprised by Russian
astrophysicists’ lack of interest in the Relikt-1 experiment’s data.
Yury Zaitsev is an expert at the Space Research Institute of the Russian
Academy of Sciences. -0-