When NASA launches its new orbiting observatory this week, a University of Sussex astronomer will be looking at parts of the universe never seen before.

Dr Sebastian Oliver is one of just a handful of UK scientists involved in the largest project for NASA’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), which leaves Cape Canaveral on Saturday, August 23.

For the next nine months Dr Oliver will help analyse data sent back by SIRTF on more a million galaxies up to ten billion light years away, where infant stars are still emerging from dust clouds.

“This is the most exciting and the most important project I have ever been involved with,” he says. “We’ll be able to study the universe in detail when most galaxies were forming their stars. It will explain a lot about how and when galaxies are formed. Long ago, galaxies were much closer together, and we think that colliding galaxies triggered periods of rapid star birth and quasar activity. We expect to see thousands of colliding galaxies in the ancient universe.”

The telescope uses infrared wavelengths to penetrate the interstellar dust, which obscures much of the universe. The pictures studied by Dr Oliver and his colleagues in the SIRTF Wide-are InfraRed Extragalactic Survey (SWIRE) project will provide the first glimpse of many distant galaxies when the universe was just three billion years old.

As the largest SIRTF project, they will have 851 hours of observation time over one month, just enough time to map an area of the sky equivalent to the space taken up by 360 moons.

“It’s going to be hard work and hectic,” says Dr Oliver, who will be working with a team led by Dr. Carol Lonsdale at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, California Institute of Technology (UK participants include Professor Michael Rowan Robinson at Imperial College London and Professor Matt Griffin at Cardiff, University of Wales ).

Notes for editor

University of Sussex press contacts: Jacqui Bealing or Peter Simmons
Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, J.A.Bealing@sussex.ac.uk or P.J.Simmons@sussex.ac.uk.
Website: www.sussex.ac.uk

1. A Boeing Delta 2 rocket carrying SIRTF is currently scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 23 at 5:37 GMT (06:37) BST

2. SIRTF marks the finale of NASA’s Great Observatories program, which includes the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

3. The mission is the cornerstone of NASA’s Origins Program, which seeks to answer the questions “Where did we come from? Are we alone?”

4. Website: http://sirtf.caltech.edu/