US Launches New Space-Based Telescope

8-25-03

NASA successfully launched into orbit a new infrared space telescope on a mission to peek into dusty corners of the universe and unveil objects that have eluded existing observatories. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) complements NASA's existing stable of super-powered telescopes orbiting the Earth: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration calls its latest creation Hubble's infrared cousin. "Liftoff of the Delta II rocket with SIRTF, seeking hidden secrets of the evolution of our universe," a launch official exclaimed Monday as the rocket blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Boeing Delta II Heavy rocket lifted off exactly on schedule at 1:35 am (535 GMT) and reached orbit, at a height of 89.99 nautical miles, eight minutes later, NASA officials said. Separation of the launch vehicle and telescope went off without a hitch, and cheers erupted at the Kennedy Space Center when NASA tracking stations began receiving signals from the telescope at around 2:41 am (0641 GMT).

The launch of the 1.2-billion-dollar (1.1-billion-euro) telescope had originally been set for April, but was repeatedly postponed due to technical problems. SIRTF is one of NASA's largest infrared telescopes, and is expected to make approximately 100,000 observations during its predicted five-year life.

The telescope includes an 85 centimeter (33 inch) wide mirror and three key instruments: a camera that picks up near- and mid-infrared light; a spectrograph to analyze the light; and a photometer that can study far-infrared wavelengths. Researchers plan to use it to hunt for distant planets and other objects orbiting stars considered possible homes to an Earth-like environment, where life could have developed. "With this mission, we will see the universe as it was billions of years ago, helping us pinpoint how and when the first objects formed, as well as their composition," Anne Kinney, director of the astronomy and physics division at NASA headquarters in Washington, explained ahead of the launch.

The infrared sensors will look into some of the darkest corners of the universe -- places either too distant, too cold, or too shrouded in dust for existing telescopes to see. Because light from the farthest reaches of the universe takes so long to travel to Earth, the images picked up by the telescope will show the universe as it was in the distant past.

"This makes it a cornerstone of NASA's Origins Program, which seeks to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are we alone?" said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

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