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UH Institute for Astronomy Awarded NASA Contract

July 14, 2019, 2:00 PM HST (Updated July 13, 2019, 9:10 AM)
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The IRTF telescope on Maunakea. Courtesy photo.

The University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (IfA) has been awarded a contract by NASA worth up to $30 million to continue managing and operating the agency’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Maunakea.

The contact became effective on July 1 with a one-year base period followed by four one-year options. If all options are used, the contract has a potential value of roughly $30 million.

“This significant commitment by NASA demonstrates the value of its Infrared Telescope Facility to the agency and its overall mission,” said IfA’s John Rayner, IRTF director. “It is also an affirmation of the great work by IfA personnel and the Hawaiʻi Island community. It is an honor to work with NASA and we look forward to many more years of collaboration.”

About 30 IfA scientists and staff in Hilo and Honolulu work under IRTF, which began operations 40 years ago. The 3-meter telescope was originally built to support NASA’s Voyager missions to the outer planets and has continued supporting other NASA spacecraft missions since, as well as other scientific research directives within the solar system.

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IRTF is one of NASA’s key instruments for identifying and measuring asteroids and comets that may pose a threat to Earth known as near-Earth objects (NEOs).

“IfA personnel have developed a very flexible operating mode for IRTF over the years that has been important for optimizing solar system observations in general and for NEO observations in particular,” said NASA’s Kelly Fast, manager of the NEOO Program. “The ability to track fast-moving asteroids and to rapidly observe important new asteroid discoveries is critical for NASA’s planetary defense efforts.

IRTF was significant in the study of the first collision between a comet and a planet ever witnessed—an unusual celestial event that happened 25 years ago this month. From July 16 to 22, 1994, pieces of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, discovered just one year prior, smashed into Jupiter sending infernal plumes into the upper reaches of its atmosphere. The plumes appeared as massive, dark “scars” in the planet’s stratosphere. NASA’s IRTF was a crucial instrument for studying the temperature and composition of the plumes.

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