The Universe Tonight

Apr 4, 2009 6:00pm
NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, Alan Tokunaga

Mission Support at the IRTF

 By Alan Tokunaga, NASA Infrared Telescope Facility


The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) is a 3.0 meter infrared telescope located near the summit of Mauna Kea. The IRTF was established by NASA in 1979 to obtain infrared observations in support of its missions to the planets, comets, and asteroids. It was designed for maximum performance in the infrared portion of the spectrum by taking advantage of the high transmission, excellent seeing, minimal water vapor, and low thermal background at Mauna Kea. Facility instruments are provided for data acquisition, and these instruments are developed and maintained by the IRTF staff. The IRTF currently provides ground-based support of major missions to Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn, as well as missions to comets and asteroids. The IRTF is a leading facility for observations of asteroid surface composition, especially asteroids that come very close to the Earth.

Some recent scientific highlights of the IRTF will be discussed, including: (1) The discovery of methane on Mars, which has led to tremendous interest in understanding if this is the result of geologicalor or biological processes. (2) The discovery of a possible volcano on Titan (the largest moon of Saturn). If confirmed this would show that Titan is currently geologically active and the "lava" would be completely different from anything we are familiar with on the Earth. (3) Observations of the composition and size of an asteroid that may impact the Earth in the future. These observations lead to questions about how one might prevent it from colliding with the Earth. Galactic Center and beyond. Finally, the formation of new stars occurs within very dense regions of interstellar molecular clouds. These regions are very dusty, and entirely hidden from observers of visible light. To answer the major questions of how star formation takes place, therefore, we need to observe at the longer wavelengths – in other words, infrared and submillimeter. 

Since much of the work conducted at the IRTF is done remotely, there will be a discussion of how observations are made utilizing the internet. Current observations with the IRTF are made by observers located anywhere on the Earth.

Speaker Biography 

Alan Tokunaga has worked on astronomical instrumentation and studies of the solar system, interstellar medium, and star formation. Since joining the Institute for Astronomy in 1979, he has been a staff member of the NASA IRTF until 1990 and a staff astronomer at the IFA until the present time. While on the staff of the IRTF, he was Principal Investigator responsible for the construction of two facility instruments, the Cooled Grating Array Spectrometer and the Cryogenic Echelle Spectrograph. His research with these instruments included spectroscopy of comets, planets, and satellites, spectroscopy of carbonaceous infrared emission features in the interstellar medium, and high-resolution spectroscopy of the circumstellar material of young stellar objects. He was the Principal Investigator on the Infrared Camera and Spectrograph, a facility instrument for the 8.2-m Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea. His current research includes studies of the carbonaceous material in the interstellar medium and star formation. He has been promoting the use of standard near-infrared filters since 2000. During 2005-2006 he co-led a study for a mid-IR echelle spectrograph for the Thirty-Meter Telescope. He is currently the Director of the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility.

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