U astronomy prof will see 30 years of work pay off with telescope launch

The year was 1956. Officials in Washington and Moscow were racing to put a satellite into orbit, and somewhere in St. Paul a young Robert Gehrz was stuffing match heads into a makeshift aluminum foil rocket tube.

“I’d cut the tips off of hundreds of packs of paper matches and put them in this aluminum foil tube, then put a little fuse on the end and light that sucker off. They always did something interesting,” said Gehrz, a University astronomy professor. “Sooner or later my parents began to notice that their matchbooks were disappearing. One day my brother and I got caught firing one of these off behind the garage and that was the end of that.”

This summer, Gehrz will watch a Boeing Delta rocket rise off a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and into outer space, carrying with it a $720 million NASA telescope he and others have worked on for nearly 30 years.

“We’re very excited and nervous but at the same time optimistic,” Gehrz said.

Gehrz is one of 14 scientists from around the country who serve on NASA’s Science Working Group, a panel that has overseen all aspects of the agency’s latest telescope, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility.

“We’ve been working on this project for 29 years, trying to cover all the angles, to make sure we’ve tested everything as completely as we can,” Gehrz said. “We think that we haven’t left anything unturned – we hope not – but as you probably know from studying the news over the years, spacecraft are subject to catastrophic failures, and you never know. If you haven’t caught everything, you could be in big trouble.”

The telescope is the final project in NASA’s Great Observatories Program. Three others in the series, including the Hubble Space Telescope, observe visible light, gamma rays and X-rays.

Once launched into outer space, the telescope will trail the Earth around the sun. Because of its distance from Earth, the 20-foot-long telescope will be unreachable for repair once it leaves the planet.

“If something isn’t right, we cannot fix this spacecraft. It’s going to be a piece of space junk,” Gehrz said.

Using the telescope, astronomers will be able to observe infrared light from beyond the edge of the known universe.

“This is a very valuable telescope,” said Gehrz, one of a dozen “guaranteed time observers.” Gehrz and the University will get 100 observation hours. Data collected during that time will be exclusive for one year before becoming public domain.

Gehrz has 11 projects already approved for his observing time.

“The most ambitious one is to map out the stellar populations in a nearby galaxy named M33,” he said. “It’s a big galaxy, about the size of the full moon in the sky.”

“We’re going to look at a few comets. We’re going to look at a region of star formation called W3. We’re going to look at a globular cluster called Omega Centaur Ö” he said. “We’re going to look at a supernova remnant. We’re going to look at a bunch of young stars to find out if they’re forming planetary systems. We’re going to look at a bunch of old stars that are dying to see what kinds of materials they’re returning to the interstellar clouds from their explosive stages and their winds.”

The telescope is set to launch in August.

Dan Haugen covers research and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]