HILO — The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy was awarded a contract by NASA to continue to manage its telescope on Maunakea.
The institute has managed NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility for 40 years, and will likely do so for five more after a new contract took effect at the start of July.
The contract is for a one-year base period, followed by four one-year options. If all options are exercised, the contract is valued at approximately $30 million, according to the university.
“It’s very unlikely that we won’t get funding for all five years,” said John Rayner, IRTF director with the Institute for Astronomy.
With funding for the telescope assured for the foreseeable future, the facility can continue with what Rayner called it’s “fundamental role” with NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office: analyzing the structure of near-Earth objects that might pose a threat to the planet.
While the IRTF does not track asteroids directly, Rayner said it can perform spectral scans of near-Earth asteroids and comets to determine their composition and the extent of damage they could cause if they were to strike the Earth.
Rayner said 50% of the IRTF’s observing time is reserved for objects within the solar system, with the remainder open for general astrophysics. The telescope’s ability to observe during the daytime makes it invaluable to providing mission support for NASA and other space agencies; Rayner said the telescope can observe NASA’s Juno probe around Jupiter and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency probe Akatsuki around Venus even when those planets are near the opposite side of the sun from Earth.
The renewed contract comes at the month of two anniversaries for the telescope. The IRTF began operations in July 1979, and also played a role in studying the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 against Jupiter in July of 1994.
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