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March 19, 2001

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contacts: Dr. Alan Tokunaga 808-956-6691 tokunaga@ifa.hawaii.edu

Dr. Rolf Kudritzki 808-956-8566 kud@ifa.hawaii.edu

Mrs. Karen Rehbock 808-956-8566 rehbock@ifa.hawaii.edu

UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII WINS MAJOR NASA CONTRACT

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

Professor Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, IfA Director, commented "I am very pleased the IfA will continue to manage and operate this national observatory for NASA. The Institute has managed the IRTF under NASA contracts since 1979. Winning this new award demonstrates NASA’s continuing satisfaction with the excellent job we are doing." The proposal was prepared by Dr. Alan Tokunaga, IRTF Division Chief, with assistance from other IfA staff members.

Dr. Tokunaga said he was pleased by the award. "This gives us an opportunity to continue supporting NASA’s space exploration program and to support astrophysical research for the U.S. astronomical community. We also 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 grants to build high-tech scientific instruments for the telescope. The IRTF has developed one of the best infrared instrumentation groups in the world."

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

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

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

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

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

The IRTF staff are located both at Institute for Astronomy at UH Manoa and the new IfA Hilo Facility in UH Hilo University Park. The IRTF employs 24 people, including astronomers, engineers and technicians, as well as administrative and clerical personnel. They provide support for observations 362 nights each year as well as develop the instrumentation that is used to make the observations. A crew of six technical staff members are present each working day to ensure that the telescope and instruments are in working order each night. In addition there is a staff of three astronomers who provide visitor support, construct instruments, and maintain the scientific productivity of the observatory.

Other staff members include engineers and technicians who develop and maintain instruments as well as upgrade the telescope capabilities. A telescope operator provides assistance for each night of observing. The IRTF also employs undergraduate and graduate students. The graduate students are part of the astronomy graduate program at UH Manoa and they work directly with the scientific staff.

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

The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the Sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea. Refer to the Institute for Astronomy Web site for more information.

[NOTE: For additional information on the IRTF refer to IRTF Web site. Images are also available on the Web site.

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