The Catholic University of America

March 10, 2008

Astrophysicist to Discuss Spitzer Space Telescope at CUA

The Spitzer Space Telescope shows what Earth's solar system might have looked like billions of years ago. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Michael Werner, a renowned astrophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will discuss "The Spitzer Space Telescope: Exploring the Infrared Universe" at Catholic University March 14, at 4 p.m. The talk is open to the public. Werner is the guest speaker for the 27th annual Karl Herzfeld Memorial Lecture.

Werner will discuss the Spitzer telescope's detection of light and measurement of atmospheric currents from extrasolar planets -planets beyond the Earth's solar system. Previously, scientists had only been able to determine the existence of extrasolar planets, rather than actual characteristics of those planets such as their weather systems and molecules in their atmosphere. The presence of molecules is an important step toward determining possible life on extrasolar planets.

Werner, who has worked in astrophysics for 40 years, also plans to discuss the Spitzer telescope's observations of the edge of the universe, providing scientists with insights on the formations of planets and stars.

"The Spitzer telescope is right in the heart of [some] of the most exciting threads in modern astrophysics," Werner said.

Such discoveries have been made possible by the Spitzer telescope's highly sensitive instruments that rely on heat radiation known as infrared light to make observations. At the same time, the telescope remains cold, with temperatures slightly above absolute zero, and therefore emits no infrared radiation of its own that could distort findings.

As a result, the telescope -the largest ever launched for infrared exploration of the universe-observes distant corners of space, in part by penetrating dense clouds of gas and dust. In addition, it illuminates tiny objects too dim to be detected by ground-based telescopes and previous infrared missions, such as actual diamonds that are rare on Earth but ubiquitous in space.

Large detector arrays, similar to a hand-held digital camera, also play an important role. The instruments produce highly pixilated images and digital data that scientists can use easily.

"It is in a wonderful orbit, not around the Earth but around the sun, which provides a very
stable and quiescent environment," Werner said of the Spitzer mission.

The talk takes place in Hannan Hall's Herzfeld Auditorium on the CUA campus. Admission is free. The lecture is sponsored by the Department of Physics and honors Karl Herzfeld, a renowned Austrian physicist at CUA from 1936 to 1972.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Mary McCarthy or Katie Lee in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.