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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Profs. launch work on telescope

    Astronomy professor George Rieke tries to find the perfect picture of the galactic center in his office yesterday. Rieke and his wife Marcia Rieke, also an astronomy professor, are working with NASA to test a piece of the future James Webb Space Telescope.
    Astronomy professor George Rieke tries to find the ‘perfect picture of the galactic center’ in his office yesterday. Rieke and his wife Marcia Rieke, also an astronomy professor, are working with NASA to test a piece of the future James Webb Space Telescope.

    UA professors are creating a telescope for NASA that will be launched into space to photograph distant galaxies, as the university continues to be a key player in NASA projects.

    The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to make breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the universe, said Marcia Rieke, a professor of astronomy and one of the leaders of the project for NASA.

    The JWST will be able to take pictures of the oldest, or most distant, galaxies observable, in turn allowing astronomers to study the first galaxies formed by the big bang, said Marcia Rieke.

    The telescope, set to launch in 2013, will show planetary structures in clearer view, as well as how the sun was formed. In the past, details of the sun were hidden by dust, said Marcia Rieke.

    In addition, JWST will allow for more detailed study on how planetary systems could possibly support life.

    This isn’t the first time the UA has led a project for NASA.

    George Rieke, a professor of astronomy and U.S. leader for an instrument on the JWST called MIRI, said Arizona plays a huge role with NASA missions, and the UA campus has become a center of activity for NASA.

    Any NASA project involving planetary science and space astronomy always involves the UA, said Jonathan Lunine, a professor of planetary sciences and physics.

    Last year, UA had more NASA projects than any other university in the world. Lunine attributed this to key NASA players at the UA, such as Frank Low and Gerard P. Kuiper, whose correspondence with NASA dated as far back as the 1950s.

    UA was involved with projects such as the first Mars landing with the Pathfinder, the first orbit of Saturn and parts of construction on the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes.

    “”If you are a student interested in the NASA projects, take advantage of this time you have on the UA campus to learn about this,”” said George Rieke.

    Flight cable assembly parts for JWST are currently being built in the basement of the Steward Observatory.

    Lunine is one of six interdisciplinary scientists of astrobiology for the JWST around the U.S., who ensure that the instruments engineered for the telescope will perform the science intended.

    “”We work as the tendons between the muscles,”” Lunine said.

    Before JWST, the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in 2003, was the most effective space telescope using the infrared technology, which uses heat waves to take photos.

    Spitzer, the third cold-infrared telescope ever launched into space, made breakthroughs with its ability to take 64,000 pictures at once.

    “”Spitzer is such a big advance that you find something mind-boggling once a month,”” said George Rieke, who also led a team who worked on the Spitzer for 15 years.

    Unfortunately, Spitzer proved too small to identify details of planetary systems, and the JWST is picking up where it left off, George Rieke said.

    George Rieke said JWST has the same cold infrared qualities as Spitzer, but with a mirror 240 inches in diameter, as opposed to Spitzer’s 34-inch diameter, which will allow for significantly clearer images.

    “”JWST will become a pinnacle of infrared astronomy,”” Lunine said.

    However, the JWST project has not been without its own set of obstacles to overcome.

    George Rieke said his section of the telescope, the mid-infrared instrument, was nearly cut from federal funding. Since NASA priced the telescope too low, people tried to stop different parts from being made in order to stay under the budget, George Rieke said.

    However, George Rieke said he and his teammates fought hard enough to keep their section of the project running.

    Marcia Rieke said a machinist made a disastrous mistake in Alabama constructing her portion of the telescope, called NIRCAM.

    The machinist pushed the wrong button on the computer, cutting the mirror in the wrong direction, Marcia Rieke said. The machinery for the mirror must now be redone with the limited federal funding available.

    “”This mistake came down to plain old human error,”” Marcia Rieke said.

    Both professors identify with the stress and pressure that accompanies a major NASA project.

    George Rieke said there is a 10 percent chance that something will go wrong with a launching and said business with NASA can be tough.

    “”Space flight is not for sissies. People put in a huge amount of effort, and sometimes nothing comes of it,”” George Rieke said. “”Fifteen years of your life sits on a launchpad, and the smallest mistake could destroy everything you’ve worked on.””

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