Utah State, NASA join to survey the universe

By Lisa Roskelley
The Standard-Examiner
November 24, 2004

A $40 million contract between the Logan-based Space Dynamics Laboratory and NASA opens the door to the first all-sky survey in more than two decades.

Utah State University's SDL will join NASA in a venture to build the next generation infrared telescope. Scheduled to launch in 2008, the telescope is intended to explore, survey and map the universe as a part of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

"SDL will be the major player in finding new stars, new galaxies and new asteroids," said Harry Ames, SDL deputy director, estimating there are 100,000 undetected asteroids that will be revealed.

"We're, of course, interested in any of those that might be Earth-orbit crossing. This mission could protect us," he said.

SDL is a unit of the USU Research Foundation, a nonprofit research corporation owned by Utah State University. SDL research is focused on challenges in the military and sciences.

The unmanned satellite's cost to NASA is estimated at $208 million, and SDL will receive $40 million during the next three years, which equates to about 15 percent of the company's budget. Of the company's 350 employees, about 25 to 30 will be involved in this project.

SDL is in charge of the cryogenic instrument, while the spacecraft will be built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo.

Since other technologies have been unable to detect data on the coolest and dimmest stars, the cryogenic technology will be used to overcome the problem. Since even items at room temperature, such as telescopes, give off infrared information, the telescope will be kept at minus 430 degrees Fahrenheit by a cryostat, which is similar to an ice chest full of solid hydrogen, and will absorb power from the sun by solar panels.

"What we're doing is making the electronic eyeball really, really cold so it is not blinded by its own heat," Ames said. "You have to make the eyeball colder than what it's looking for."

From the satellite, infrared photos will be taken of the sky every 11 seconds, meaning nearly 1.5 million pictures will have been taken after six months.

The project was approved by NASA for the preliminary design phase for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which is considered to be a medium-class explorer of lower cost, highly focused, rapid-development scientific spacecraft.

The space-based telescope will survey its surroundings with infrared detectors up to 500,000 times more sensitive than previous survey missions.

"We will see new galaxies," Ames said. "We'll have several thousands times better resolution and sensitivity than was done two decades ago. We'll be looking back several billion years in time."

The data collected by Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer will be sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Infrared Processing and Analysis Center in Pasadena, Calif.

Also, as one of the pre-eminent facilities for infrared and cryogenically cooled detection devices, the SDL calibration center recently was allocated $1 million by Congress for an on-orbit calibration facility.

Copyright ©2004, Ogden Publishing Corporation