March 11, 2003

Infrared Telescope To Launch in April

Print More

The Cornell astronomy department will see off its infrared telescope, part of the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) project, next month when it launches into orbit.

SIRTF, the fourth and last of NASA’s Great Observatories program, has been in the works for over 20 years. According to James R. Houck, the K.A. Wallace Professor of Astronomy and the principal investigator on the project, the “main objective is to extend the type of observations done by Hubble [Space Telescope] into the infrared part of the spectrum.”

Houck’s area of specialization is on the infrared spectrograph. The spectrograph, according to the official SIRTF website, is an “instrument which spreads light out into its constituent wavelengths, creating a spectra.” The spectrograph has the special capability to use infrared light to penetrate clouds of matter obscured by gas and dust and is one of four instruments on board the telescope facility.

Unlike the Hubble, which “can image a galaxy or star through starlight, we’re seeing the light emitted through the dust,” Houck said.

Houck chronicled the progression of the SIRTF project. In 1978 the project began, and Cornell was officially selected to build the instrument in 1984. The team became “serious about building in the mid-1990s,” he said.

In terms of what the general public should be aware of, Houck feels that “SIRTF will bring tremendous sensitivity in the infrared.”

Associated with the SIRTF project is the Space Infrared Telescope Facility Fellowship Program, which recruits postdoctoral students of astronomy to contribute to the project. Fellows chosen for the program must choose a U.S. academic institution at which to study. Of the four fellows selected for the 2003 team, one will be studying at Cornell. Henrik Spoon, a Dutch astrophysicist who recently graduated from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, is going to be on a team of ten postdoctorate students when he arrives at Cornell this summer, Houck said.

Spoon, according to the SIRTF website, plans to study “dust in ultraluminous infrared galaxies.” On his personal website, Spoon said that he is excited to see the new data that will be generated by SIRTF because he has already seen nearly every galaxy spectrum obtained by the Infrared Space Observatory.

The other projects of NASA’s Great Observatories include the Hubble, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. SIRTF is also part of NASA’s Astronomical Search for Origins Program, which deals with probing the formation of the universe and the formation of galaxies.

Houck supported the broader implications of the SIRTF project. It will “enable us to understand the formation of the early universe and galaxies” in the quest to “learn about how the universe formed,” he said.

Houck, Spoon and the other postdoctorates hope to see results soon after the April launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Archived article by Natalie Adams