ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO--The Hubble Space Telescope's infrared vision has been restored, and it turns out to be more sensitive than ever. At the American Astronomical Society meeting here, excited astronomers presented the first images taken by Hubble's NICMOS (Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph) camera after it was outfitted with a new cooling system in March. "It's absolutely fantastic that we now have infrared eyes back on Hubble," says NICMOS principal investigator Rodger Thompson of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
NICMOS was installed in February 1997, but the solid nitrogen used to cool the sensitive infrared detectors to 62 degrees kelvin (-348 degrees Fahrenheit) was depleted just 2 years later, much faster than anticipated. Now, with a new refrigerator-like cooling system, the camera should be back in business indefinitely. Observing in the infrared enables Hubble to peer into dusty star-forming regions and to study the extremely distant universe.
According to astronomer Daniela Calzetti of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, NICMOS is between 30% and 40% more sensitive than it used to be--thanks to a new coolant, it operates at a somewhat higher temperature, increasing the efficiency of the detectors. "This will enable us to look deeper, or to do the same science in less time," says Calzetti.