|Volume: 01, Issue: 01|
Space InfraRed Telescope Facility to Launch April 18thMid-April will see the launch of the Space InfraRed Telescope Facility (SIRTF), an orbital infrared observatory designed to study objects inside and outside our Solar System. It is the final installment in a series of space-borne observatories that began with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The Great Observatories program uses SIRTF and HST, as well as the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (CGRO) and Chandra X-Ray Observatory (CXO), to examine our universe in a wide array of spectral wavelengths.
By studying the structure and composition of dusty planet-forming discs around stars, the SIRTF mission 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 Space Infrared Telescope Facility will enable scientists to look further 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, Washington, D.C.
"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 NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "For example, interstellar space has lots of carbon-rich organic molecules. Understanding these may illuminate the processes by which life formed."
During its two-and-one-half to five-year mission, scientists 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, as well as asteroids and comets.
Aside from the boon to future scientific exploration, the SIRTF project has already made quite a few innovations, not the least of which being its unusual orbit. The instruments aboard the SIRTF require an extraordinarily low temperature in order to operate correctly—within a few degrees of absolute zero. It would be expensive to fly SIRTF with enough liquid helium needed to keep it cool in the usual geocentric orbit, so the observatory will trail behind Earth in its orbit around the Sun, drifting further into space each year. This will eventually take SIRTF into deep space, where temperatures are much closer to those needed for its instruments.
To learn more about SIRTF, visit:
You can watch on the web as SIRTF is prepared for launch through a real-time video here:
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