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Cornell's James Houck receives a top NASA honor for work on orbiting Spitzer telescope

ITHACA, N.Y. -- James Houck, Cornell University's Kenneth A. Wallace Professor of Astronomy, has been awarded NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for leading the successful development of the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared spectrograph.

The spectrograph, the largest of the three instruments on the orbiting space telescope, has been providing scientists with a new perspective since the observatory's launch in August 2003. Unlike optical telescopes, the spectrograph allows researchers to see into dense clouds of dust in the cosmos and take infrared snapshots of objects in distant galaxies. By breaking down the way an object's emitted light is distributed along the spectrum, scientists can determine the object's chemical composition and learn more about how galaxies, stars and planetary systems form. 

With the spectrograph, which is 100 times more sensitive than its predecessors, Houck and other researchers can see faraway objects as they looked just a few billion years after the universe formed. The instrument has been used to observe a wide range of phenomena, including ultraluminous galaxies, brown dwarfs, nascent stars and organic material in remote galaxies. 

"There are a lot of new avenues of research that are opening up," said Houck. "If anything, the data collected by the spectrograph are far more spectacular than we imagined." And now that they know the instrument's capabilities, Houck added, "we are going to change our sights. We will be pushing the envelope much more."

Houck, a past recipient of Cornell's Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching, received his B.S. degree from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1962 and Ph.D. from Cornell in 1967; he joined the Cornell faculty in 1969. This is his second Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal: NASA first awarded him the medal in 1984 for his development of the spectrograph on the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS.

The Spitzer Space Telescope, the fourth and last of NASA's Great Observatories, is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. built the infrared spectrograph under Houck's direction.

The spectrograph took a beating early on from two very powerful solar storms, which bombarded the instrument with protons. But, said Houck, the peak of the 11-year solar cycle has passed, which means such events will taper off. "The next four to five years should be smooth sailing," he said. "There are a lot of really talented people who worked on the project -- many of them from Cornell. It has been a lot of fun."

The Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal is one of NASA's top honors, awarded annually by its Incentive Awards Board and approved by the administrator. Houck will accept the medal at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, June 22.

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