The Space Infrared Telescope Facility: Time for a new name
In approximately one year's time, NASA will launch its next major space observatory, an infrared telescope called SIRTF -- the Space Infrared Telescope Facility. In this day and age, it goes without saying that the new space telescope is expected to revolutionize our view of the universe. Technology is simply advancing at such an amazing rate that every new telescope we put up can't help but be hundreds, if not thousands of times better than its predecessors.Skip to next paragraph
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But somehow that isn't enough for NASA. To the public, distant satellites floating around in space can seem very remote, very disconnected from our lives. To combat this feeling of isolation from science, NASA needs your help. The public is being called upon to name the new space telescope.
In my mind, it's never a good idea to name something before you actually get to know it a little. So what is SIRTF all about? How is it expected to change our view of the universe? And, to be candid here, why does NASA need another space observatory when the ones they already have are working just fine, thank you very much? To begin with, SIRTF is part of a larger family called NASA's Great Observatories. Other members you may have heard of are the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray observatory, and the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory. These four observatories were designed to complement each other in quite an interesting way: each looks at the universe using a different kind of light.
But what does that mean, using different kinds of light to look into space? When you look at a gorgeous, full-color picture of a galaxy from the Hubble Space Telescope, you can see all the colors of the rainbow, all the colors the human eye can see. What other kinds of light are there? The other three members of NASA's Great Observatories are designed to look at the universe in invisible light: light the human eye can't sense. For a lot of people, the idea of invisible light seems new and unfamiliar. It shouldn't.
By now we've all been warned to slather on sunscreen when we go outside. We're not protecting ourselves from visible light, which doesn't damage our skin, but from ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet is a kind of light that our eyes can't sense, but our skin definitely can as it gets burned. This sort of light carries more energy than visible light, and can cause more damage when it hits us.
How about X-rays? That's a kind of light that packs so much energy, it goes right through our bodies, allowing a look inside. Everyone on the planet is familiar with infrared light, but we tend not to think of it as a sort of light. Instead, we sense it as heat. That's why night-vision goggles often see in the infrared: even in complete darkness, you can't hide your own body heat. Another way of saying it is that in infrared light, a human body naturally glows, as clearly as a light-bulb in a dark room. It's just a kind of light our eyes can't see.
We call all the different kinds of light electromagnetic radiation, as all forms of light, invisible or not, are made up of electrical and magnetic fields which are bound together into a package called a photon. And photons can carry different amounts of energy. In visible light, for example, we perceive different energies as different colors. A photon of blue light has more energy than green, which has more energy than yellow, so on and so forth all the way down the rainbow. The lowest energy light the human eye can see is red light. The next "color" down is infrared (which literally means "beneath red"), which we can't see at all, but can perceive as heat.