NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin today authorized the start of work on the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), an advanced orbiting observatory that will give astronomers unprecedented views of phenomena in the universe that are invisible to other types of telescopes.
The authorization signals the start of the design and development phase of the SIRTF project, which is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. Scheduled for launch in December 2001 on a Delta 7920-H rocket from Cape Canaveral, FL, SIRTF represents the culmination of more than a decade of planning and design to develop an infrared space telescope with high sensitivity, low cost and long lifetime of at least two-and-a-half to as many as five years.
"The Space Infrared Telescope Facility will do for infrared astronomy what the Hubble Space Telescope has done in its unveiling of the visible universe, and it will do it faster, better and cheaper than its predecessors," said Dr. Wesley Huntress, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "By sensing the heat given off by objects in space, this new observatory will see behind the cosmic curtains of dust particles that obscure much of the visible universe. We will be able to study fetal stars, detect other solar systems and study the most ancient, distant galaxies at the edge of the universe."
Conventional optical telescopes can study stars and other objects that glow brightly enough to emit light in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. However, many objects, such as planets and unignited stars, do not "shine" in visible or ultraviolet light. Others that may burn brightly are veiled from Earth's view behind the vast clouds of dust and gas that populate the universe.
Some of the most fascinating objects and processes in the universe may exist behind these cosmic curtains of dust and gas, such as black holes, quasars, regions where stars are forming in galaxies and regions where planets are forming around stars. Most of these concealed attractions are detectable only with infrared telescopes, whose unique capability lies in their ability to sense the heat of dark, faint or hidden objects.
Infrared telescopes also provide the means to study the most distant objects at the edge of the expanding universe. Optical and ultraviolet light emitted from stars, galaxies and quasars since the birth of the universe has shifted, over time and distance, into the infrared portion of the spectrum. SIRTF will provide important insights into when and how the first galaxies and stars formed.
SIRTF, whose design and development is cost-capped at $458 million, will be one of astronomys most advanced telescopes. Its unconventional approach uses new technologies, an innovative mission design and small launch vehicle. It is being developed on a quick schedule that closely integrates the work of the contractor and academic teams responsible for development and delivery. Its design promises high sensitivity and observing capability along with efficiency of operations and long lifetime.
SIRTF is the fourth and final element in NASA's family of complementary spaceborne "Great Observatories" that includes the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the Advanced X-ray Telescope Facility. The project also represents a bridge to NASA's new Origins program, which seeks to answer fundamental questions about the birth and evolution of the universe. SIRTF will lay the groundwork for many investigations fundamental to the Origins program, such as studies of the birth and evolution of galaxies, their stars, and searches for planets that orbit some of those stars.
Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, Sunnyvale, CA, is responsible for the spacecraft and for the SIRTF system integration and testing. Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp., Boulder, CO, is responsible for the cryogenic telescope assembly. The three science instruments are being provided by Dr. Giovanni Fazio, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Dr. James Houck, Cornell University and Dr. George Rieke, University of Arizona. The SIRTF Science Center, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, will receive the data from JPL and process it, and work with the astronomy community. Astronomers around the world are invited to request observing time on SIRTF.
SIRTF is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington DC. Larry Simmons of JPL is the project manager. The project scientist at JPL is Dr. Michael Werner. At NASA Headquarters, the SIRTF program executive is Lia LaPiana. JPL is a division of Caltech. More information about SIRTF and other infrared astronomy projects can be found on the web at http://sirtf.jpl.nasa.gov/sirtf/ and http://www.ipac.caltech.edu.
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