A visit from a Nobel Prize-winning NASA scientist last week is helping throw light on work researchers at the University of Rochester are doing to look farther into space than previously possible.
The researchers are working on an infrared detector that will improve NASA's ability to see into space, a technology they hope will be part of future telescope launches.
John Mather, NASA's chief scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, traveled here to see research taking place at the university and at ITT Exelis and share ideas about the future of optics in space exploration.
Mather's project is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that launched in 1990 to observe deep into space. The new telescope is expected to launch in five years with two main goals: to help scientists study the birth and evolution of galaxies and the formation of stars and planets.
NASA has received support and guidance from UR and ITT Exelis, the brand for Exelis Inc., in building the telescope, Mather said, and he was excited to share news of its progress with both institutions.
He also was excited to visit UR and see the research being done there on infrared detectors, which are used in telescopes, Mather said.
"One of the things in optics that we're very interested in is the continuing development of better infrared detectors," he said. "The group there with Judy Pipher and others is pushing the wave length out to greater than what they can do with the James Webb Space Telescope."
Pipher has worked with Professor William Forrest in infrared astronomy and infrared detector array development at UR. The research team developed an infrared space array camera for the Spitzer Space Telescope that helped study the formation of stars.
With news of the asteroid that traveled perilously close to earth last week, the task of looking into space has been given new meaning, Pipher said.
"This is a topic that's very interesting right now," she said. "This asteroid that was grazing quite close to earth was called a near-earth object, and we can best sense those things in space using the kind of infrared sensors we've worked on."
The work Pipher and Forrest were doing was not completed in time for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, but Pipher said she hopes to be able to contribute more to NASA in the future.
She and Forrest are working on proposals to NASA to extend the wavelength of infrared detectors to search even farther into space.
"The more you can do this, the more you'll be able to learn, and we're very excited about that," Pipher said.
During his visit Mather made a presentation at UR. Though physics colloquiums do not typically generate crowds, quite a few people came to hear him speak, Pipher noted. He also spoke with several faculty members and met with some visiting professors from Rochester Institute of Technology.
As hosts to Mather during his visit, Pipher and Forrest had a more intimate visit, meeting with him over dinner to talk about projects and the future of space exploration.
Mather also paid a visit to ITT Exelis, which created some of the technology used on the James Webb Space Telescope, which launches in 2018. ITT came up with technology to help the telescope better focus, Mather said. (See ITT Exelis works with UR's Laboratory for Laser Energetics on page 7.)
"This is the great successor to Hubble, and, since Hubble had some difficulty in focusing, this is a really important improvement," he said.
Pipher said researchers at UR can learn a lot from sharing ideas and research plans with people such as Mather.
"Whenever you talk to people like that, you get ideas about future experiments, and they often have input to the things you're working on now," Pipher said.
The discussion also keeps open the pipeline between NASA and local researchers, Forrest said.
"You can't even begin to plan a mission unless you have the technology, and that's what we're working on creating," he said.
Mather said the visit was productive, allowing for a free exchange of ideas.
"It's good to talk about what we're investigating and cheer each other on, and ask, 'Have you thought of this,'" Mather said. "Once in a while a conversation that we have among peers can help start up a new project."
Exchange between researchers also helps break down barriers and keep projects focused on the future, he added.
"We also got to talk about the next steps we could take, what we can use to look even further into space and look for things like dark energy matter," Mather said.
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