Space lab to build telescope to map universe

By Greg Lavine
The Salt Lake Tribune
November 24, 2004

More than two decades after scientists last created a comprehensive map of the universe, researchers at Utah's Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) are part of a $208 million NASA mission to repeat the feat with updated technology.

The lab, affiliated with the Utah State University Research Foundation, has won a $40 million contract to create the infrared telescope that will tackle the task, officials announced Tuesday. Infrared is a wavelength of light not visible to the unaided human eye.

Harry Ames, SDL's deputy director, said the barrel-shaped device should be built and ready to launch by summer 2008. The 1,000-pound device will sit on a spacecraft that will spend up to 12 months orbiting over the north and south poles about 800 miles into space.

The mission, known as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission, will include SDL equipment packed into a container that is 3 feet in diameter and about 5 feet long.

"We expect to see about 100,000 new asteroids," Ames said of the upcoming survey mission.

The new asteroids of greatest interest are those that have orbits that could intercept Earth's orbit, he said.

But the telescope will also take a bigger-picture look at the cosmos. If the universe were shaped like a basketball, with the Earth moving around inside, the telescope would capture images of the ball's inside walls.

"It'll look at every part of the cosmos at least once," he said.

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite, launched in 1983, was the last mission designed to conduct an infrared, all-sky survey of the universe. Ames said advances in technology now offer the chance for getting a resolution thousands of times better than the last survey.

Ames explained this survey will also seek dim stars, known as brown dwarfs, that may be lurking closer than the nearest visible stars.

SDL, which traces its roots to 1948, is involved in developing and building instruments for space and atmospheric sciences.

NASA will use results from this all-sky survey to determine how best to use the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2011.

"The [all-sky survey] mission will complete the basic reconnaissance of the universe in mid-infrared wavelengths, providing a vast storehouse of knowledge that will endure for decades," Peter Eisenhardt, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a news release. "This catalog of data will also provide NASA's future James Webb Telescope with a comprehensive list of targets."

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.