The Space Infrared Telescope Facility, or SIRTF, an orbiting telescope — part of the same program as the famous Hubble telescope — will be launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on April 15, 2003.

UR astronomy professors Judy Pipher William Forrest and Dan Watson have played important roles in implementing this program since it began in 1983.

Astronomers hope that SIRTF will provide information about the nature of colder objects in space which do not give off much light, such as dust clouds or smaller stars.

It is also expected to reveal much about the origins of stars and even solar systems. “We’re very interested in star formation,” Pipher said. Forrest added, “We hope this will illuminate the era of planet formation around stars.”

Forrest said that another concern of the project is how common brown dwarfs are. Brown dwarfs are a type of star, but they are so small, cold and dim it is very hard to see them.

The UR team was selected because state-of-the-art camera arrays for both cameras and spectrometers had been developed here.

The professors from UR have been working on both the cameras of the telescope and the spectrometer, a device that determines the chemical composition of something by the light it gives off.

Watson has been of the spectrometer team and Forrest on the camera team, with Professor Emeritus Pipher working on both.

“Here, we’ve concentrated on developing and improving the telescope’s detector arrays,” Pipher said.

SIRTF is the fourth orbiting observatory of NASA’s Great Observatories Program. The three others — Hubble, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Chandra X-Ray Observatory — record visible light, gamma radiation and x-ray radiation, respectively.

SIRTF is attuned to infrared light, which is primarily heat radiation. All of these telescopes are in orbit to escape the diffraction caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, and for SIRTF being in orbit is even more important to escape the background heat on Earth.

To minimize heat exposure even further, the telescope will maintain a temperature of 5.5 degrees Kelvin — about -270 degrees Celsius.

Watson explained that besides seeing things too dark or cold to be seen otherwise, SIRTF is also expected to reveal much about very distant objects and the origins of the universe.

As a result of the red shift, a property of light traveling very long distances, a star visible to the naked eye up close might not be at a distance.

Therefore, the SIRTF telescope will be able to clearly see stars so far off and ancient that their light is no longer visible otherwise.

Levesque can be reached at clevesque @campustimes.org.



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