Regents' Professor Marcia Reike Searches for the Start of Stuff

The history of the universe is becoming clearer thanks to the field of infrared astronomy and the contributions of Marcia Rieke, extragalactic astronomer, cosmologist, and, as of December 9, 2010, UA Regents Professor.

“I wanted to be an astronomer from early in college,” she says of her days at MIT. “It was between that and aeronautical engineering. But the classes I took tipped the scales. I loved the physics classes.” 

Since then, Rieke has dedicated her career to the study of the longest wavelengths of light – called “far-infrared” wavelengths – that can tell stories from the early formation of the universe over 10 billion years ago. Far-infrared astronomy was practically invented at the UA, as the dry air and high mountaintops offered excellent conditions for observing these wavelengths of the spectrum.

Today, Rieke continues her pioneering spirit, blazing new trails to improve our understanding of the universe we call home. Her research has changed the fundamental astronomical views on active galaxies and on the entire process of star formation.

“Finding the start of stuff intrigues me,” she says. “That’s the holy grail for me.”

UA faculty since 1979, her list of accomplishments is impressive. She led the international effort to conduct deep surveys using the Spitzer space telescope launched in August 2003. She also co-authored one of the most cited studies in all of astronomy on infrared interstellar extinction law, and wrote papers on galactic radiation and starbursts in colliding galaxies that have become classics in the field.

When it comes to astronomical instrumentation, she is perhaps best known internationally for her work on space infrared missions and is the principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam). This new technology, currently under development at the University of Arizona under Rieke’s leadership, will be installed on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2014. The mission promises to deliver the most sensitive views of the early universe humanity has ever seen.

What is it like to be in Marcia Rieke’s shoes? Working with her in the UA’s Steward Observatory is nothing like working in a regular lab where researchers can tweak instrumentation and re-test to observe results. She develops instrumentation that needs to work perfectly, every time – from 1.5 million miles away. Within the walls of Steward, she and her team are simulating the conditions of space and putting NIRCam’s instruments through test after test to ensure not only that it will work, but that they can fix it when the unexpected occurs.

“When you’re testing something to be used remotely,” she says, “you have to be creative about trouble shooting and working around what might go wrong, because once it’s launched, it’d better work right. No second chances.”

While many astronomers are more akin to observers, Rieke is an explorer and a risk-taker. Taking on a NASA project offers great opportunity, but things can also go drastically wrong.

“You might spend fifteen years developing an instrument for a mission in space. Then the rocket might blow up.”

But with such risk comes great reward. The lessons we can learn from data gathered with a telescope stationed in the clear vacuum of space is, quite literally, far and away from anything we can learn from an instrument filtering our vision through the soupy thickness of Earth’s atmosphere.

“Some folks are afraid to take that risk,” she says. “But you can’t be afraid.”