"Finding My Way" -- Life on the Inside, As Told by an Intern
Written by Sara Leeper, Spitzer Science Center
February 9, 2005
This article is a followup to "Astronomese", posted on January 28, 2005.
|An artists' conception of the Spitzer Space Telescope conducting observations.
I seem to slowly be finding my way around the building and am learning the most direct routes to the bathroom, drinking fountain and, most importantly, the front door! However, there are still times when I find myself lost in a hallway of offices that I swore I just passed through! It must be a funny sight to see me suddenly stop in my tracks to look around, walk the opposite direction from which I just came and then return again to continue on my way. After lunch with a few of my colleagues, I learned that one of the halls has been jokingly titled "the hallway of lost souls" because it dead-ends at a conference room.
It really boggles me as to how everyone around here can keep track of so many different missions, labeling most with one of those cute little acronyms! Yes, as someone pointed out, language here is like "alphabet soup." Yet no one seems to mind, and in fact, it makes communication a lot faster and easier. If people actually spoke out the acronyms, I am not sure any work would ever get done because they would be too busy speaking the technical phrases!
The general public, myself included, is generally naive as to the number of missions that NASA is juggling at any one time. My lunch partners were able to rattle off a number of missions that are still in progress, recently launched, or in the can for the future. For example, Deep Impact (no, not the movie with Robert Duvall) is scheduled to reach its destination this July. Its mission is to release a spacecraft into a comet in order to blast off a piece of the comet and create a large crater that scientists can then study. The hope is that the examination of material deep within the comet as well as measurements of the surrounding atmosphere's changes after the impact will give more insight into the formation of the solar system.
It's hard to get people interested in research that doesn't directly affect them. However, I have observed that once Spitzer's mission it is actually explained in detail, the audience begins appreciate the discoveries that are taking place. My position in public affairs allows me to do just that. Although exciting, the most difficult part of my job has been simultaneously learning from astronomers at Spitzer and teaching people outside the scientific community. I might sound like I know what I'm talking about, but right now it's more of a lesson in spitting back information I just learned!
Every time I hear someone explain what the telescope does, I learn a little bit more. The unique thing about Spitzer is that the infrared images it captures fill in the empty gaps of other visible, x-ray, and gamma-ray images taken by Hubble, Chandra, and Compton. The composite photo of these put together is a beautiful blueprint of an object's composition.
I have become quite familiar with Spitzer's website over the past few weeks while as a useful resource in understanding the telescope and its processes. During one of my recent surfing endeavors, I discovered a link on the site that allows you to access information about what the telescope is viewing at any one time. The correct term for the process of viewing a particular object is astronomical observation request (AOR). Scientists submit proposals for time to use Spitzer to observe a particular area or object of space for their own research purposes. Under the "About Spitzer" section is a link titled "Current Status" that displays the AOR's target name, the right ascension and declination (similar to latitude and longitude of earth), the program name and scientist who requested it, the Spitzer instrument currently taking readings, and the start time and duration of the observation.
It may just be that some of the enthusiasm here for all things space is staring to rub off on me, but I find myself gravitating (no pun intended) toward that link to find out what target Spitzer is observing at any one time! The concept of examining objects outside our own window seat view of space that were previously, on many levels, unknown is a remarkable achievement that I am slowly starting to understand!