Space Observatory To Study The Old, The Cold And The Dusty
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.
|March 25, 2003
A NASA observatory will soon open a new window to the universe.
By using infrared technology to study celestial objects, which are
either too cool, too dust-enshrouded or too far away to otherwise
be seen, NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), will
pierce the thick dust that permeates the universe.
From its Earth-trailing orbit around the sun, SIRTF, set to launch
on April 18, will unveil new information about galaxies, stars,
and dusty discs around nearby stars, which may be "planetary
"The Space Infrared Telescope Facility will complete NASA's
suite of Great Observatories, a program that includes three previous
missions that studied the universe with visible light, X-rays and
gamma rays," said Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator
for space science. "Many cosmic objects produce radiation over
a wide range of wavelengths, so it's important to get the whole
picture," he said. The three previous Great Observatories are
the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma Ray, and Chandra X-ray
By studying the structure and composition of dusty planet-forming
discs around stars, SIRTF will aid the search for Earth-like planets
that may harbor life. This makes it a cornerstone of NASA's Origins
Program, which seeks to answer the questions, "Where did we
come from? Are we alone?"
Infrared detectors can see longer wavelengths than the red light
visible to our eyes. As the universe expands, starlight from distant
galaxies is shifted from blue to red and, ultimately, into the infrared.
Most radiation emitted by stars, galaxies and other objects in the
early universe now lies in the infrared. The SIRTF will enable scientists
to look farther back in space and time than was previously possible.
"With this mission, we will see the universe as it was billions
of years ago, helping us pinpoint how and when the first objects
formed, as well as their composition," said Dr. Anne Kinney,
director of the astronomy and physics division at NASA Headquarters.
"The observatory will give us a better understanding of the
universe and our place within it," said Dr. Michael Werner,
the mission's project scientist at JPL. "For example, interstellar
space has lots of carbon-rich organic molecules. Understanding these
may illuminate the processes by which life formed," he said.
During its two-and-one-half to five-year mission, the SIRTF will
also study brown dwarfs, or cool, "failed stars." Some
scientists think brown dwarfs may account for some or all of the
elusive "dark matter" thought to be prevalent in the universe.
The mission will also study planets in our own solar system, asteroids
The observatory's telescope has three science instruments. The infrared
array camera is a general-purpose camera for near-to- mid-infrared
wavelengths. The infrared spectrograph breaks light into its various
wavelengths, much like a prism, to help astronomers study the composition
of cosmic objects. The multi-band imaging photometer will gather
pictures and limited spectroscopic data at far-infrared wavelengths
to study cool, dusty objects.
The spacecraft features several technological breakthroughs, and
the out-of-the-ordinary mission design will pay dividends as well.
"The innovations have substantially reduced mission development
costs," said Project Manager Dave Gallagher at JPL. "For
example, the mission's Earth-trailing orbit simplifies scheduling
and operations. Because the telescope detects heat from relatively
cool objects, we have to keep it extremely cold. We've found a more
efficient way to cool the telescope and slash the amount of liquid
helium the observatory must carry," Gallagher said. The mission's
technologies and science discoveries will help enable future Origins
missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Terrestrial
JPL manages the SIRTF mission for NASA's Office of Space Science,
Washington, and conducts flight operations. NASA's Goddard Space
Flight Center is responsible for building the Infrared Array Camera.
The SIRTF Science Center at the California Institute of Technology,
Pasadena will handle all aspects of science operations, including
data processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Sunnyvale,
Calif., is responsible for spacecraft design and development, observatory
systems engineering, integration and testing. Ball Aerospace and
Technologies Corporation, Boulder, Colo., is responsible for the
design and development of the cryo-telescope assembly, integration
of the science instrument cold assemblies into the cryostat, and
is subcontractor for two science instruments.
For more information about SIRTF on the Internet, visit: http://sirtf.caltech.edu
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