Active & Future Projects

Due to rapid advances in infrared detector technology, the development of adaptive optics for ground based work and the commitment to infrared missions from space organizations such as NASA, ESA and ISAS, the future of infrared astronomy is extremely bright. Within the next decade, infrared astronomy will bring us exciting discoveries about new planets orbiting nearby stars, how planets, stars and galaxies are formed, the early universe, starburst galaxies, brown dwarfs, quasars and interstellar matter. Below is a summary of currently active and future infrared projects. Click on the links to learn more.

For links to submillimeter missions such as SWAS and microwave missions such as MAP, see NSSDC's Astrophysics Missions. For information on past missions see the section on the background of infrared astronomy.

NICMOS - Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer

Start-Duration: Attached to the Hubble Space Telescope in February 1997

Description: An infrared array consisting of 3 cameras and 3 spectrometers.

Goals: Provide spectra and high resolution images in the near infrared of regions in space.

Wavelengths: 0.8 - 2.5 microns

Keck Interferometer

Start-Duration: Began operation in 2001

Description: The Keck Interferometer Project will combine the twin Keck Telescopes to form an interferometer. The Keck Interferometer is part of NASA's Origins program and will use adaptive optics to remove the effects of atmospheric turbulence.

Goals: To detect planets around nearby stars in the infrared. In visible light, the light from a star is millions of times brighter than the light from a planet. The visible light from a planet is hidden by the brightness of the star that it orbits. In the infrared, where planets have their peak brightness, the brightness of the star is reduced. This makes it possible to detect planets in the infrared.

Wavelengths: 1.6 - 10 microns

Spitzer Space Telescope

Start-Duration: Launched in August 2003

Description: The Spitzer Space Telescope consists of a 0.85 meter telescope, a camera, spectrograph and photometer. Spitzer is much more sensitive than prior infrared missions and will study the universe at a wide range of infrared wavelengths. Like ISO, Spitzer is operated as an observatory.

Goals: The Spitzer Space Telescope mission will concentrate on gathering data on: protoplanetary and planetary debris disks, brown dwarfs and super planets, Ultraluminous galaxies and active galactic nuclei, and the early universe. Spitzer can also be used to study the outer solar system, early stages of star formation and the origin of chemical elements.

Wavelengths: 3.5-180 microns

IRIS (Infrared Imaging Surveyor)

Start-Duration: Launch in 2004 - 1.5 years

Description: IRIS is an infrared space mission planned by the Japanese space agency ISAS. It will have a near and mid infrared camera and a far infrared scanner.

Goals: IRIS will be used to study the formation and evolution of galaxies, star formation, interstellar matter and extra-solar systems.

Wavelengths: 2-25 microns and 50-200 microns

The Herschel Space Observatory

Start-Duration: Launch planned in 2008 - > 3 years

Description: The Herschel Space Observatory is a proposed European Space Agency infrared-submillimeter mission. It is part of ESA's Horizon 2000 Scientific Program.

Goals: The Herschel Space Observatory will perform spectroscopy and photometry over a wide range of infrared wavelengths. It will be used to study galaxy formation, interstellar matter, star formation and the atmospheres of comets and planets. The current plan is to merge Herschel with ESA's PLANCK, mission.

Wavelengths: 80 - 670 microns


Start-Duration: Launch planned in 2008

Description: PLANCK is a proposed European Space Agency (ESA) far infrared-submillimeter mission. It is part of ESA's Horizon 2000 Scientific Program

Goals: PLANCK will image the anisotropies of the Cosmic Background Radiation over the entire sky with exceptional resolution and sensitivity.

Wavelengths: 350-10,000 microns


SOFIA - The Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy

Start-Duration: Scheduled to begin operations in 2009

Description: SOFIA, a joint project between NASA and the German Space Agency, will be optical/infrared/sub-millimeter telescope mounted in a Boeing 747. Designed as a replacement for the very successful Kuiper Airborne Observatory, SOFIA will be the largest airborne telescope in the world.

Goals: Flying at altitudes between 41,000 and 45,000 feet, SOFIA will take infrared observations high above most of the infrared absorbing atmosphere and will be able to observe at all infrared wavelengths. SOFIA will be used to study interstellar clouds, star and planet formation, activity in the center of the Milky Way and the composition of planets and comets in our solar system. As with the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, teachers and students will be allowed to fly on SOFIA to learn about infrared astronomy.

Wavelengths: The entire IR range

The James Webb Space Telescope

Start-Duration: Launch planned for 2013

Description: The James Webb Space Telescope is an infrared space mission which is part of NASA's Origins program

Goals: The James Webb Space Telescope will have extremely good sensitivity and resolution, giving us the best views yet of the sky in the near-mid infrared. It will be used to study the early universe and the formation of galaxies, stars and planets.

Wavelengths: 0.5 to 20 microns

TPF (The Terrestrial Planet Finder)

Start-Duration: Launch date - ?

Description: TPF is envisioned as a long baseline interferometer space mission and is a part of NASA's Origins program An interferometer is a group of telescopes linked together across a "baseline". By gathering data with several telescopes linked in this way, very precise position measurements can be made.

Goals: TPF will concentrate on detecting terrestrial planets (small and rocky planets - like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) outside our solar system and orbiting other stars. By studying near infrared spectral lines, astronomers can also detect several molecules which can indicate how earth-like these planets are.

Another long-term space mission which has been identified by NASA is a far- infrared interferometer, covering infrared wavelengths not included in the TPF mission. This mission, which has not yet been give a name, would study the earliest and coolest phases of star and planetary disk formation.

Wavelengths: 7-20 microns (the best range for searching for Earth-like planets)

Darwin (space infrared interferometer project)

Start-Duration: 2015

Description: Darwin is a candidate for the European Space Agency's infrared interferometer space mission

Goals: The primary goal of Darwin is to search for Earth-like planets around nearby stars, and to search for signs of life on these planets by studying infrared spectral lines in their atmospheres. Darwin would also be used as a general infrared astronomy observatory. The Darwin project would consist of about 6 individual telescopes combined as an interferometer about 100 yards across and would orbit between Mars and Jupiter, beyond the zodiacal dust which radiates infrared light at the wavelengths which will be used to search for planets.

Wavelengths: Not yet defined - near infrared

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