When our solar system was young, its biggest babies--Jupiter and Saturn--threw tantrums by the trillion. The huge planets hurled ice-covered rocky bodies from the inner solar system far past the orbit of Pluto. Some of those bodies revisit their old neighborhood as "long period" comets, which have been called the Rosetta Stone of the solar system because their pristine composition holds the key to understanding how Earth and similar planets formed. Astrophysicists from the University of Minnesota and the Spitzer Science Center (California Institute of Technology) will present sharp pictures of comets and their dust trails, as well as data on comets chemical composition, taken during the Spitzer Space Telescopes first year of operation during a poster session and press conference Tuesday, Jan. 11, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer does not oribt Earth; instead, it travels behind the Earth in the same orbital path. It operates at infrared wavelengths, which enables it to see objects and material too cold to emit visible light. This is possible because even cold objects radiate heat to their surroundings as long as the surroundings are even colder. That heat is given off as infrared radiation; the cooler the object, the longer the wavelength of infrared light it emits.
The astrophysicists who will present the studies are Robert Gehrz, a University of Minnesota astronomy professor and key member of the team that focused Spitzer in orbit; Charles "Chick" Woodward and Michael Kelley, astronomy professor and graduate student, respectively, at the university; and William T. Reach of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology.
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