Three scientists from the University of Arizona in Tucson - two from Steward Observatory and a third from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory - will play major roles in the development of the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), NASA's successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and to SIRTF, an infrared telescope to be launched early next year.
Scheduled for launch in 2010, the new NGST telescope's primary science objective will be to look back in time to an extremely important period in the early history of the universe when the first stars and galaxies began to form shortly after the big bang.
NASA has selected a team led by Marcia Rieke from the UA Steward Observatory to provide the near-infrared science camera for the NGST. Rieke will lead a team that includes industry members from Lockheed-Martin, Palo Alto, Calif.; EMS Technologies, Ottawa, Canada; and COMDEV, Ltd., Cambridge, Canada. The near-infrared camera will be the primary NGST instrument to locate and conduct the initial studies of these first stars and galaxies.
UA astronomer George Rieke, also from Steward Observatory, will lead the science team for the mid-infrared instrument. This team will work in collaboration with scientists and engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the European Space Agency. The mid-infrared instrument will enable NGST to study stars and galaxies forming inside dense clouds of interstellar dust that may be missed by the near-infrared camera.
According to George Rieke, "NGST extends our work with NICMOS, for Hubble, and MIPS, about to be launched on SIRTF, to a level that would have seemed a fantasy when we joined the university. We are really excited at the opportunity to help learn how our universe came to be."
Jonathan Lunine, from the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is one of several scientists NASA has selected to serve on the NGST science working group. This group will provide scientific guidance during the development of the telescope.
"This provides UA astronomers the opportunity really to determine the science that will be done into the future," Lunine said. His proposal involves characterizing planets around other stars in terms of their potential to harbor life.
The NGST is the follow-up telescope to Hubble, scheduled for retirement in 2010. At approximately 6 meters (20 feet) in diameter, NGST's primary mirror will be more than two-and-a-half times as large as the Hubble mirror.
In addition to a large light-gathering mirror, NGST will operate at near-and mid-infrared wavelengths to better detect extremely distant objects, for which the cosmological redshift has moved the visible light into the infrared. NGST will study objects that formed when the universe was between one million and a few billion years old. It will be capable of seeing objects 400 times fainter than those currently studied with large ground-based telescopes or the current generation of space-based infrared telescopes.
The NGST telescope, estimated to cost $1 billion by a 2001 National Academy of Science report, will be built by an industry team that NASA will select later this summer.