Infrared Telescope Powers Up

NASA’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility has switched on two of its onboard instruments and captured some preliminary star-studded images. The space observatory was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on August 25.

In the early morning of August 25, 2003, NASA launched the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) the fourth and final element in NASA’s family of Great Observatories.
Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., 2003

The images were taken as part of an operational test of the infrared array camera. It will take about a month to fully focus and fine-tune the telescope and cool it to optimal operating temperature, so these early images will not be as sharp or polished as future pictures.

Aliveness Image. This engineering image derives from 100 seconds of observing time on one of the three science instruments aboard the Space InfraRed Telescope Facility (SIRTF). SIRTF was launched on August 25, and opened up its focal plane to starlight on August 30. This image was obtained as part of the instrument power-on sequence on September 1, one week after launch and a full month before the telescope is expected to reach optimal operating temperature and focus. The stars and galaxies seen in this image already attest to the observatory’s great sensitivity in the infrared and to its proper operation.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

"We’re extremely pleased, because these first images have exceeded our expectations," said Dr. Michael Werner, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We can’t wait to see the images and spectra we’ll get once the telescope is cooled down and instruments are working at full capacity."

The telescope’s dust cover was ejected on Aug. 29, and its aperture door opened on Aug. 30. The spacecraft is operating in normal mode, and all systems are operating nominally. The team is very pleased with the rapid progress of the observatory and all of its onboard systems, said Project Manager David Gallagher of JPL.

In addition to the infrared array camera, the multi-band imaging photometer instrument was also switched on for the first time in a successful engineering test. The spacecraft’s pointing calibration and reference sensor detected light from a star cluster. The third instrument, the infrared spectrograph, will be turned on later this month.

These operations are part of the mission’s two-month in-orbit checkout, which will be followed by a one-month science verification phase. After that, the science mission will begin a quest to study galaxies, stars and other celestial objects, and to look for possible planetary construction zones in dusty discs around other stars.

NASA’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) is a new platform for exploring the universe using infrared light. Astronomers find the infrared to be a valuable tool as it opens an important window into otherwise hidden regions of the universe. Research into the origin and composition of planets hinges on infrared observations which can reveal the composition of objects within our solar system as well as detect the material that may be forming worlds around other stars. Likewise in the infrared astronomers can study stars throughout their lives, from the earliest stages of formation in the hearts of dust clouds to their final years as they sputter and die. On larger scales, astronomers can probe distant galaxies individually or collectively, expanding our picture of the universe as a whole.

"A major area for SIRTF contributions to astrobiology will be in the spectroscopic study of carbon-bearing molecules and solids in the interstellar medium and in circumstellar shells," says Werner, project scientist for SIRTF. "Data from these programs will become available eight months after launch."

What’s Next

SIRTF will get a new name after it is launched. NASA held a contest to re-name the telescope, and over 7,000 people submitted suggestions. The spacecraft’s new name will be revealed at a press conference four months after launch. The first SIRTF images will be available at that time, as well.

SIRTF is the last of the "Great Observatories" that NASA first proposed in the 1970s. Each observatory examines the heavens in a different electromagnetic spectrum. Because they are space borne telescopes, orbiting above the distorting atmosphere of the Earth, they are able to gain unprecedented views of the universe. The most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, the visible light telescope, and it is expected to operate until 2010. The Compton Observatory, launched in 1991, examined gamma rays until its mission ended in 1999. The Chandra Observatory, launched in 1999, examines X-rays and is scheduled to operate through 2004.

SIRTF has a 2.5-year mission, although it could be extended to 5 years. Because SIRTF will lag a little further behind the Earth as time goes by, after 5 years SIRTF will be about 50 million miles away.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Space Infrared Telescope Facility for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.

Related Web Pages

Magellan Telescope Project
Infrared Camera MIRAC3/BLINC (Harvard)
Space Infrared Telescope Facility Science Center (Caltech)
University of Arizona Astronomy (M. Meyer)
Infrared Space Observatory (ESA)
Planetary Embryos Hatch