University of Rochester

Local Astronomers' Work to Launch Next Week, Says NASA

August 19, 2003

SIRTF, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility and final installment of NASA's Great Observatory series that includes the Hubble and Chandra telescopes, is expected to launch on Monday, Aug. 25. The critical infrared "eyes" of the telescope were designed in part by University of Rochester physics and astronomy professors Judith Pipher, William Forrest, and Dan Watson. The launch has been delayed several times since its initial schedule of December 2001.

The $458 million instrument will provide the clearest view ever of the universe in infrared light--a wavelength of light that is invisible to the naked eye as well as most telescopes. Even specially built telescopes have a difficult time seeing infrared objects in space since Earth's atmosphere blocks most infrared light, leaving astronomers blind to regions of space that may actually be teeming with celestial objects. The ignition of fledgling stars, the evolution of solar systems and activity within the most distant galaxies are among the events SIRTF is specially designed to witness.

Forrest and Pipher were the first U.S. astronomers to turn an infrared array toward the skies, putting the University on the map as home to one of the world's strongest programs in infrared astronomy. In 1983, Pipher and Forrest had mounted a prototype infrared detector onto the University telescope in the small observatory on top of the Wilmot Building on campus, taking the first-ever telescopic infrared pictures of the moon.

In that same year, NASA sent out word that it was looking for scientists to help build an infrared space telescope, and Pipher and Forrest put forth their ideas based in part on the infrared technology christened on campus. The proposal impressed NASA, and within just a few months Pipher and Forrest were evaluating and testing SIRTF's would-be eyes, and they were soon joined by Watson, a newly hired astronomer. The Rochester contingent is part of a nationwide team of scientists from more than a dozen academic institutions and aerospace companies; the project is led by the SIRTF Science Center at the Caltech-NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The launch time is set for 1:35 a.m. EDT, Aug. 25. It was most recently set to go on Aug. 23. If the weather or other problems make this impossible and the launch is called off more than 12 hours in advance, the next try would be approximately 24 hours later; if scrubbed at the last minute, the next attempt would commence approximately 48 hours later.

SIRTF will not be launched aboard the grounded Space Shuttle fleet, but on a Delta rocket due to its special orbital requirements. The telescope will not orbit the Earth, but will be placed in orbit around the Sun, farther into space than Earth's orbit. The telescope's mission will mark the 300th launch of the remarkably successful Delta rockets.

For those interested in keeping tabs on the launch or viewing the launch via the Web, the main SIRTF Web site is located at