The infrared detectors aboard NASA's brand new infrared space telescope have been tested in deep space and are working well--good news for the three University of Rochester astronomers who designed the detectors. The space telescope is in orbit around the sun, much too far away for any possible repair mission like that which repaired the ailing Hubble telescope.
This is the 11th day of the 90-day systems check during which scientists fine-tune the telescope and begin cooling it to hundreds of degrees below zero. The early tests consisted of rough images taken with the University astronomers' detectors.
"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 in 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."
Professors of physics and astronomy Judith Pipher, Bill Forrest, and Dan Watson helped design and test the chips that are sensitive to 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 the new telescope is specially designed to witness.
The telescope, currently named SIRTF for Space Infrared Telescope Facility, will be renamed after the 90-day checkup is complete, much like the Hubble was renamed after Edwin Hubble, who discovered early in the last century that the universe is expanding. The new name of the telescope will be announced along with the first official images from the facility.
SIRTF was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Aug. 25. More information and the latest images can be found at http://sirtf.caltech.edu/.