University of Hawaii Wins Major NASA Contract

University of Hawaiʻi
Posted: Mar 20, 2001

NASA has awarded the University a major contract to manage the InfraredTelescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea. Dr. Alan Teramura, Senior Vice-Presidentfor Research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, announced that this $17million, five-year contract will run from 2001 to 2006. The telescope ismanaged by the UH Institute for Astronomy (IfA).

Professor Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, IfA Director, commented "I am verypleased the IfA will continue to manage and operate this national observatoryfor NASA. The Institute has managed the IRTF under NASA contracts since1979. Winning this new award demonstrates NASA's continuing satisfactionwith the excellent job we are doing." The proposal was prepared byDr. Alan Tokunaga, IRTF Division Chief, with assistance from other IfA staffmembers.

Dr. Tokunaga said he was pleased by the award. "This gives us anopportunity to continue supporting NASA's space exploration program andto support astrophysical research for the U.S. astronomical community. Wealso plan to seek additional grants to build instrumentation for the observatory.In the past decade we have averaged an additional $300,000 a year in grantsto build high-tech scientific instruments for the telescope. The IRTF hasdeveloped one of the best infrared instrumentation groups in the world."

The IRTF is operated as a national infrared observatory for astronomersin the U.S. 50% of the time is devoted to observations of solar system objectsand 50% to all areas of astronomy.

Missions to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as well as to comets and asteroidscost hundreds of millions to over one billion dollars. Ground-based observatorieslike the IRTF can provide complementary observations for far less cost thansimilar observations made from space. In the case of the Galileo spacecraft,now in orbit around Jupiter, a defective antenna prevented timely imagingof Jupiter as a probe from the spacecraft entered the atmosphere of Jupiter.The IRTF was used to provide the necessary observations that showed whatthe atmospheric conditions were like at the point the probe entered theatmosphere. This was an excellent example of how ground-based supportingobservations can enhance the return of scientific results from spacecraft.

Ongoing research at the IRTF includes observations of Jupiter in supportof the Galileo spacecraft now in orbit around Jupiter as well as the Cassinispacecraft that recently flew by Jupiter on the way to Saturn, observationsof "brown dwarfs"-objects that are intermediate in size betweenplanets like Jupiter and low-mass stars, observations of very young stars(many that are less than 100,000 years old), and observations of distantgalaxies. Research proposals are accepted from astronomers throughout theU.S. as well as other countries.

The IRTF is designed for maximum performance in the infrared portionof the spectrum, taking advantage of the high transmission, excellent seeing,minimal water vapor, and low thermal backgrounds which characterize theatmosphere above Mauna Kea. Infrared radiation is particularly useful inmeasuring the temperature and composition of astronomical bodies, especiallythose obscured by the dust and gas in interstellar space.

Infrared telescopes such as the IRTF enable astronomers to see throughinterstellar "fog," which optical observations cannot penetrate.Planets reflect visible light from the Sun, but they "shine" ininfrared light, but only, and so NASA is particularly interested in usinginfrared light to study the objects in the Solar System.

The IRTF staff are located both at Institute for Astronomy at UH Manoaand the new IfA Hilo Facility in UH Hilo University Park. The IRTF employs24 people, including astronomers, engineers and technicians, as well asadministrative and clerical personnel. They provide support for observations362 nights each year as well as develop the instrumentation that is usedto make the observations. A crew of six technical staff members are presenteach working day to ensure that the telescope and instruments are in workingorder each night. In addition there is a staff of three astronomers whoprovide visitor support, construct instruments, and maintain the scientificproductivity of the observatory.

Other staff members include engineers and technicians who develop andmaintain instruments as well as upgrade the telescope capabilities. A telescopeoperator provides assistance for each night of observing. The IRTF alsoemploys undergraduate and graduate students. The graduate students are partof the astronomy graduate program at UH Manoa and they work directly withthe scientific staff.

The current budget of the IRTF is $3.2 million annually. Additional fundsare also obtained from the NSF for instrumentation. Facility upgrade fundsare also obtained as needed from NASA.

The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii conducts researchinto galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the Sun. Its faculty and staffare also involved in astronomy education, and in the development and managementof the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea. Refer to <>for more information.

[NOTE: For additional information on the IRTF refer to <>.Images are also available on the website <>.]