According to &to=http://www.abcnews.go.com' target=_blank>ABCnews NASA unveiled the first views Thursday from its space infrared telescope, a super-cooled orbiting observatory that can look through obscuring dust to capture images never before seen. The telescope, a $670 million project launched in August, can detect extremely faint waves of infrared radiation, or heat. Astronomers for the first time are able to peer into the heart of stellar fields that had been blocked from the view of conventional telescopes by dense clouds of dust and gas.
"This gives us a powerful new capability that will enable us to see things not seen before and to answer questions we couldn't even ask before. This is a very powerful new tool for astronomy," Michael Werner, an astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said at a news conference. He is the project scientist for the Spitzer Space Telescope, named in honor of the famed astronomer Lyman Spitzer Jr.
Added Giovanni Fazio, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a Spitzer researcher: "We are now able for the first time to lift the cosmic veil that has blocked out view and see the universe in all of its components."
After four months of tests and calibration, the most sophisticated infrared telescope ever sent into space is using its unique vision to study objects too cold or too distant to be otherwise seen through clouds of gas and dust. Its sensors, astronomers hope, will help them discover new planets and unravel secrets of star formation, among other things.
The observatory, known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility when launched on Aug. 25, was renamed on Thursday in honor of Dr. Lyman Spitzer Jr., the famed Princeton astronomer who in 1946 first proposed launching telescopes into space, to avoid the obscuring effects of Earth's atmosphere.
The NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, noted that the three other Great Observatory telescopes, like this one designed to study the universe across the entire spectrum of visible and invisible light, had been named for giants of science and astronomy. It is only fitting, Mr. O'Keefe said at a news conference, that the name of Dr. Spitzer, who died in 1997, join this "Mount Rushmore of observatories." – reports &to=http://www.nytimes.com' target=_blank>Nytimes
The telescope "will change the way astronomers do astronomy," predicts John N. Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. With Spitzer's infrared capability, "it will no longer be astronomically correct to characterize a system by only X-ray, optical, or ultraviolet light," he adds. Spitzer is the first observatory to provide a full picture of the disk, says Karl R. Stapelfeldt of JPL.
The disk's outer region, which has a radius of about 150 times the Earth-sun distance, roughly corresponds to the relative location of a reservoir of comets near our solar system's edge. The newly imaged inner region of the disk comes as close to Fomalhaut as Saturn does to the sun and may mark the location of an inner asteroid belt circling the star, notes Stapelfeldt. Spitzer found that one section of the outer part of Fomalhaut's disk was noticeably brighter than the other and so has a higher dust concentration. The gravitational influence of an unseen planet could be responsible, notes Stapelfeldt.