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Where Rochester Has Gone Before

News that the James Webb Space Telescope is nearing a launch date—perhaps going into space as early as this fall—creates excitement among those who marvel at the breathtaking images captured by such powerful observatories and those who rely on the instruments to understand at new levels of detail the processes behind the formation of planets and stars.

The journey of the Webb telescope will mark a milestone for planetary science and human ingenuity.

Closer to Earth, the new telescope adds to the galaxy of space-based telescopes, observatories, and satellites that Rochester faculty and alumni have played significant roles in over the past half century.

Here are some of the space-based telescopes and observatories with Rochester connections.

Text by Lindsey Valich | Illustration by Steve Boerner (NASA models)

image of a hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

Lauch date: April 1990

Mission: To take the sharpest optical images ever made, revealing the structures of galaxies and the nebulae and stellar clusters they contain.

Shortly after launch, scientists recognized that NASA’s visible-light Great Observatory and the first major optical telescope to be placed in orbit had flaws in its mirror. Duncan Moore, the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor in Optical Engineering Science, chaired a review panel to determine how to give the mirror the right prescription to correct what was, in effect, the telescope’s nearsightedness. Jim Fienup, the Robert E. Hopkins Professor of Optics, who was then at the University of Michigan, also served as an advisor to the national panel.

image of a Spitzer Space Telescope-->

Spitzer Space Telescope

Launch date: August 2003; retired January 2020

Mission: To map the faintest obscured birthplaces of stars and planets in the Milky Way and other galaxies.

Dan Watson and William Forrest, professors of physics and astronomy, were members of the Infrared Spectrograph instrument team for NASA’s infrared-light Great Observatory; Forrest and Judith Pipher, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, were members of the Infrared Array Camera team. The team designed the instrument and its connections to the telescope and spacecraft, and used it to make discoveries in planet formation, extragalactic star formation, and exoplanets.

image of Herschel Space Telescope

Herschel Space Observatory

Launch: May 2009; deactivated June 2013

Mission: To study the cold regions of space to understand the formation of stars.

Rochester’s Dan Watson was co-investigator and a lead scientist on one of the largest programs for the observatory, a joint effort of the European Space Agency and NASA.

image of Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission.-->

Near-Earth Object Surveillance

Launch date: Estimated 2025

Mission: To search for hazardous near-Earth asteroids.

The mission includes a space-based telescope that uses an infrared light sensor developed by Rochester scientists Judith Pipher, William Forrest, and Craig McMurtry. The sensor can collect infrared light emitted by asteroids and comets traveling close to Earth.

image of James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope

Launch date: Estimated 2021

Mission: To complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, with improved wavelength coverage and sensitivity.

A group of Rochester alumni and faculty members are involved in a series of optical, thermal, and functional tests of the telescope’s key elements. Rochester faculty members involved include William Forrest, Judith Pipher, James Fienup, and Duncan Moore, who cochairs a group of national experts in optics and space science that is advising NASA on the telescope.

image of sofia observatory.


First science flight: November 2010

Mission: To provide a highly detailed view of star and planet formation and serve as a test bed for future spaced-based observations.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is situated on a Boeing 747SP jet airliner modified to carry a telescope and fly at altitudes up to 45,000 feet. Rochester scientists Judith Pipher, William Forrest, and Dan Watson built instruments for the previous two generations of airborne observatories, the Lear Jet and the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. The instruments have been used to study the formation of massive stars; the motions and distribution of gas clouds in the center of the Milky Way; and the composition of dust made by dying stars, among many other topics. Pipher, Forrest, and Watson continue to be involved in the development of instrumentation for SOFIA and other suborbital observing platforms.


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