McDonald Observatory Astronomer to Lead Study of 'Vision Mission' Space Observatory for NASA

19 April 2004

AUSTIN, Texas – McDonald Observatory astronomer Dan Lester has received a $325,000 grant from NASA to study a ‘vision mission’ concept for the Single Aperture Far Infrared Observatory. The mission is known as SAFIR (pronounced "sapphire," like the jewel).

This year-long study is the first step toward approval and scheduling of the observatory, which might launch as soon as 2015. "NASA gives this money for ‘vision studies’ to aid them in strategic planning," Lester said. "We’ll be researching SAFIR’s science value and the technological capabilities needed to reach those science goals."

SAFIR is projected to be a large, supercooled space telescope studying the heavens in the far infrared region of the spectrum. Specifically, the observatory will have a 10-meter-class mirror, operate at temperatures close to absolute zero, and make astronomical observations at wavelengths between 20 micrometers and one millimeter.

"This study is a good fit for The University of Texas," Lester said. "We’ve got lots of infrared astronomers here — we do this kind of science."

Lester said SAFIR will be used to study the formation of planetary systems inside our Milky Way, as well as distant primordial galaxies, in revealing wavelengths to which other planned telescopes aren’t sensitive. SAFIR’s "area of expertise" falls in between the spectral regions covered by the future James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). SAFIR is expected to build on the legacies of the recently launched Spitzer Space Telescope and the upcoming Herschel Telescope, with sensitivity 100 times greater than these.

Lester heads a study team that includes almost two dozen astronomers and engineers from The Universities of Arizona and Maryland, Cornell University, Caltech, as well as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard, Johnson, and Marshall Spaceflight Centers.

His team also includes industry partners Ball Aerospace, Boeing Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Northrup Grumman Corp. "These companies know how to build big telescopes in space," Lester said. "Having them on this team is really important."

"This is probably a billion-dollar-class project," Lester said. "Like JWST and Hubble, this is not a small mission. It’s a big investment for our nation, but the science returns are going to be phenomenal."

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