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New space telescopes to hunt for oldest stars, habitable planets

SIRTF space telescope
An artists' rendition of the SIRTF telescope in its Earth-trailing orbit around the sun  

(CNN) -- NASA has chosen teams of scientists to use two powerful orbiting observatories, part of a fleet of space telescopes in the works that could reveal the first stars and galaxies ever formed and distant terrestrial planets that harbor life.

Six teams of researchers were chosen this month to use the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), which will see infrared radiation and peer through the veil of gas and dust that obscures most of the universe from view.

Scientists think that more energy has been emitted in the infrared spectrum than any other in the history of the cosmos. SIRTF could open their eyes to many surprises.

NASA space telescopes could see first stars in the universe, distant worlds with life.


"Perhaps half or more of the universe has been invisible until now," said Carol Lonsdale, one of the selected scientists.

SIRTF researchers will study massive black holes, young dusty star systems and the evolution of galaxies up to 12 billion light years away. Lonsdale can hardly wait for the July 2002 launch.

"It will revolutionize our study of the universe," said Lonsdale, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It will be the most sensitive instrument ever to look at the infrared spectrum in the universe."

To conduct its infrared search, SIRTF's instruments require an extremely cool and steady temperature. To help maintain that environment, the telescope will trail the Earth in the same orbital path around the sun.

Looking for planets like Earth

NASA selected scientist teams this week to scan the heavens using another futuristic Earth-trailing space telescope. The Space Interferometry Mission, or SIM, will hunt for planets the size of Earth.

Ground-based observatories have identified large gaseous planets, but SIM could detect the tiny star wobble caused by terrestrial-sized planets.

The NASA satellite is expected to launch in 2009. It will also measure the precise locations of stars in the Milky Way, which could shed light on the evolution of our galaxy.

Part of NASA's Origins Program, SIRTF and SIM are only two of numerous missions planned over the coming decades to tackle some big cosmic questions: How did the physical universe begin? When did the first stars and galaxies evolve? How do planetary systems form? Do other stars boast planets with life?

Technological advances like faster and more powerful processing units, bigger mirrors, more sensitive detection arrays and better cameras should go a long way toward helping the ten or so missions answer the cosmic riddles.

John Mather, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is working an Origins mission that will launch later this decade. The Next Generation Space Telescope could shed light on how the universe transformed after the Big Bang from a seemingly featureless entity to a complex one riddled with galaxies.

"I'm thrilled. The things we hope to learn are breakthrough science and will really change our understanding about how it all happened."

Chandra telescope spots black hole 'missing link'
September 12, 2000
Hubble telescope shows mystery object in new light
September 1, 2000
Telescope reveals images of early universe
July 17, 2000
Australian telescope searching southern skies for black holes
May 9, 2000

NASA's Origins Program
Space Interferometry Mission
Space Infrared Telescope Facility
California Institute of Technology
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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