NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) has moved one step closer toward its journey into space to explore the birth and evolution of the universe.
The high-priority astrophysics mission has successfully completed its preliminary analysis phase--known in the aerospace industry as Phase A--and now begins its definition phase, known as Phase B. NASA granted the approval after an independent review board appointed by the agency found the SIRTF mission's scientific objectives are achievable with the available resources. In this next phase, the mission's preliminary design will be developed.
"This is a prime example of NASA's 'faster, better, cheaper' approach to space exploration," said SIRTF Project Manager Larry Simmons. "Through innovation and new technology, we've reduced the cost while still providing the performance of earlier telescopes. The National Academy of Sciences has identified SIRTF as the highest-priority major U.S. astronomy mission for the 1990s."
The $434-million telescope facility will complete NASA's Great Observatories Program. As envisioned in the early 1980s, the NASA plan called for a suite of space telescopes capable of covering a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The other observatories in this family include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF) and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. SIRTF, with a planned launch in 2002, will overlap the operation of Hubble and AXAF and enable synergistic observations.
"By putting SIRTF into space, we'll be able to detect the infrared part of the spectrum with unprecedented sensitivity," SIRTF Project Scientist Mike Werner said. "This will allow us to answer questions about the early universe and dark matter which have so far not been achievable. We'll be able to determine whether stars which appear dim in visible light appear bright in the infrared due to the presence of a proto-planetary disk."
In addition to its role in the Great Observatories Program, SIRTF also marks the first major step in NASA's Origins Program, a series of missions designed to study the formation and evolution of galaxies, stars, planets and the entire universe.
The SIRTF mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, for the agency's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. The project team includes Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space of Sunnyvale, CA, which will provide the spacecraft and perform SIRTF's system-level integration and test, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, CO, which will design and develop the cryogenic telescope assembly. SIRTF's three instruments are being provided by a trio of principal investigators, one each from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA and the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ.
Some of SIRTF's innovations include a unique solar orbit (trailing the Earth as it moves around the Sun), state-of-the-art infrared technology, a new, lightweight cryogenic telescope made entirely of beryllium, and a cost-saving telescope cooling system that reduces the amount of cryogen used to maintain the low temperatures needed for sensitive infrared observations. NASA will request approval to begin SIRTF's design and development (Phases C/D) in fiscal year 1998.
Additional information can be obtained on the SIRTF World Wide Web home page at http://sirtf.jpl.nasa.gov/sirtf/home.html and on the Origins home page at http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/oss/origins/Origins.html.
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