NASA IRTF Fall 2020 News

Last updated 17 December 2020

COVID-19 Precautions and Impact on Observing

The IRTF remains operational but with strict COVID protocols in place. All observing will be done remotely for the remainder of semester 2020B and possibly 2021A depending on developments. Visitor instrument programs are currently scheduled for 2020B however it is very unlikely that these can take place given the 14-day travel quarantine restrictions for the State of Hawaii. Affected observers will be offered remote observing time with facility instruments. Observing time with visitor instruments (TEXES, HIPWAC and BASS) will be offered in 2021A however there is no guarantee that this can take place.

Telescope operations are being maintained despite the recent surges in COVID cases on both Oahu and Hawaii island. Due to social distancing needs staff presence at the summit (the day crew and telescope operators) is more limited resulting in reduced efficiency and inevitable delays in some upgrade work. Where possible all other IRTF staff are encouraged to work from home. For nationwide COVID updates visit the CDC website. Hawaii COVID updates are available here and here. For IRTF updates please contact John Rayner (

Engineering Time and Director Discretionary Time (DDT)

The IRTF schedule includes ~18 nights per semester for engineering. This time is used to address technical problems with the facility, calibrate instrumentation, and for IRTF staff science. Usually not all of this time is needed for engineering purposes, and some can be offered to observers in the form of Director’s Discretionary Time (DDT). DDT is reserved for follow-up of newly-discovered objects and of unexpected transient phenomena, or when developments since the last proposal cycle make time-critical observations necessary. A request for DDT should be submitted by email to both John Rayner ( and Bobby Bus (, and must include a strong programmatic / scientific justification, a technical description of the proposed observations (including target information, instrument settings, required S/N, and justification for the amount of time requested), and a discussion for why this work was not proposed in the last proposal cycle and why it can’t wait for the next proposal cycle. Evaluation of DDT requests will be based on the same criteria used for regular observing proposals, and on the urgency / time-critical nature of the observation. As with ToO interrupt proposals, DDT requests should include at least one team member capable of carrying out the observation without support from the IRTF staff.

In addition, observers may request DDT observing time outside of the scheduled engineering time requiring fast response. Observers should not negotiate with scheduled observers. All program changes must be approved by the Director.

Maunakea Observatories Update

Following the protests over the construction of TMT access to all Maunakea Observatories has returned to normal. The status quo is likely to be maintained until and if TMT decides to take further action. If that happens, access might become limited again but we will keep observers appraised of the situation. For updates contact John Rayner (

2021A Call for Proposals

Proposal Deadline for Semester 2021A (February 1, 2021 to July 31, 2021) is Thursday, October 1, 2020, 5PM Hawaii Standard time.

Please review the information and use our ONLINE application form

Available instruments are listed here. Remote observing is offered from any location with broadband Internet access for any project that utilizes IRTF facility instruments. Click here for more information.

Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics

IRTF submitted white papers to both the astrophysics and planetary decadal review panels. The papers were required to concentrate on three thematic areas. For the astrophysics panel we chose Planetary Systems, Star and Planet Formation, and Stars and Stellar Evolution. For the planetary panel we chose Primitive Bodies, Planetary Defense, and Ground-based Telescopes. The white papers were partly based on input from the community workshop held in 2018. Workshop presentations are viewable here.

Virtual Booth at October 2020 DPS Meeting

IRTF will have a virtual booth at the October DPS meeting. In particular, we plan on hosting a couple of Q&A Zoom sessions for all matters relating to IRTF.

Telescope Allocation Committee

The current TAC members for non-solar system proposals are: Mike Cushing (University of Toledo), Joe Hora (CfA Harvard), Hermine Landt (Durham University), and Andy Mann (University of NC at Chapel Hill), and for solar system proposals are: Mark Bullock (Southwest Research Institute), Katherine de Kleer (Caltech), Mário De Prá (University of Central Florida), and Ron Vervack (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory). Harriet Dinerstein (University of Texas at Austin) and Lori Feaga (University of Maryland) rotated off the TAC effective 2021A. If you are interested in serving on the IRTF TAC please contact John Rayner (

Help Keep Our Publications List Current

Please continue to acknowledge the IRTF in your publications following the instructions shown here. It is important that you include in your papers the name of the instrument used and the citation for the instrument, as this helps to ensure future funding of IRTF instruments.

IRTF Bibliography

To keep our bibliography up to date, and to ensure future funding of the IRTF, we ask that you send us citations to your latest IRTF publications. You can check your publications using our website bibliography page for refereed papers:

Please send any missing references to Bobby Bus (, and please continue to include in your paper the acknowledgement to the IRTF and the name of the instrument used as described at:

We are in the process of compiling a list of PhD Dissertations that have utilized observations obtained with the IRTF. If you (or your student) has written a dissertation based on IRTF data that is not yet included in this list, please send the appropriate information (including a web link to the dissertation, if possible) to Bobby Bus (

IRTF Spectral Libraries

Users are encouraged to make use of the spectral library of FGKM stars, which is available here. An extended spectral library including late-type non-solar stars observed by Alexa Villaume and collaborators is available here. Contact John Rayner ( for more details.

A library of more than 1000 prism spectra of low-mass stars and brown dwarfs is maintained by Adam Burgasser, and is available here.

The MIT-IRTF Near-Earth Object spectral survey is underway, and many spectra are publicly available. See the side bar for more information or go to

IRTF Data Reduction Update

Fully automated "quicklook" reduction of SpeX and iSHELL spectra is operational during every observing session. This enables observers to assess the quality of their data in (near-) real-time and make better informed decisions. During an observing session, the software determines from the FITS headers if sufficient data is available to run a scripted version of Spextool. It then automatically extracts spectra and displays the signal and signal-to-noise values as a function of wavelength in DV (before division over a standard star). For more information, visit the Quicklook web page.

A beta version of Xtellcor_model is available, which uses atmospheric models instead of standard stars to remove telluric absorption lines in iSHELL spectra. The software, sample data, and a manual can be downloaded from the IRTF data reduction pages. Optimization of the atmospheric column densities to the observed spectra is typically required, and thus the method works best if at least a few telluric lines are separated from stellar features. Xtellcor_model also includes a method to correct the iSHELL echelle order curvature using flat fields. This typically leaves more instrumental artifacts than when using standard stars, and observers should keep planning to take standard star spectra until they have verified that Xtellcor_model satisfies the calibration needs for their science programs.

Please visit the IRTF data reduction pages for downloading the Spextool software for both SpeX and iSHELL, as well as sample data and other useful resources, and do not hesitate to contact Adwin Boogert ( for requests and questions about the reduction of IRTF data.


We have two major recruitments underway: a Senior Engineer for Hilo and a Junior Mechanical Technician for the day crew. There is also a day crew member on long term medical leave. Short term casual hires for the day crew are also being made.

IRTF Data Archive:

The IRTF Data archive is hosted by the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive (IRSA). Raw data files taken with SpeX beginning Aug. 1, 2016, and with iSHELL beginning Feb. 1, 2017, are now publicly available via this site after a proprietary period of 18 months from the date of observation. As part of the archive process, the abstract field on the observing proposal form is being preserved and provided as metadata when data files are searched for or downloaded from the archive.

In June 2019, the IRTF Legacy Archive website was opened to the public. This site provides search and download capabilities for raw IRTF data files taken between 2001 and mid-2016. Possible search parameters include semester, start and end dates of the observations, program ID, target name and coordinates, and observer. Download of the data files is performed using a retrieval script that is generated from the search results. The Legacy Data is provided “as is” with no guarantee of quality or associated metadata other than the information contained in the fits file headers.

Further information can be viewed on the IRTF Data Release Policy page or contact Bobby Bus (

Hour Angle Drive Problem Fixed

Following servicing of the telescope hour angle (HA) drive in March 2019 the telescope has occasionally experienced oscillations in RA while tracking and also banging during slews that required slowing the slew speed. This problem has now been resolved by re-magnetizing the west drive motor and by increasing the gearbox backlash current.

New Moveable Counterweights

With the addition of iSHELL it is currently not possible to balance the telescope for all combinations of facility and visitor instruments stowed on the multiple instrument mount (MIM), reducing scheduling flexibility. To correct this, two new moveable counterweights, each weighing 1000 kg, are being fabricated. Installation of these counterweights will require several days of telescope downtime. Installation of the new counterweights has been delayed by troubleshooting and eventually fixing the HA drive problem. Since installing the new counterweights are not critical for telescope operations we want to experience a few months of problem-free tracking and slewing before adding the extra weight to the telescope.

Instrumentation Update

SpeX is a 0.7-5.3 micron medium-resolution spectrograph and imager. The 0.8 micron cut-on dichroic was replaced with a 0.7 micron dichroic during semester 2017A. This modification increases the spectral wavelength grasp for optically guided solar system targets. Sub-arrays and movie mode are working again in the IR guider. Electronic observing logs are now automatically generated. Real-time spectral extraction runs automatically in the background. For more information, see the SpeX instrument page or contact Mike Connelley (

MORIS is a 512x512 pixel Andor CCD camera mounted at the side-facing, dichroic-fed window of the SpeX cryostat (60"x60" field-of-view). MORIS can be used as an optical imager and as an optical guider for SpeX. For visible targets guiding with MORIS can significantly improve spectral sensitivity (better than one magnitude compared to IR guiding due to reduced slit losses). Electronic observing logs are now automatically generated. For more information see the MORIS instrument page or contact Bobby Bus (

iSHELL is a 1.06 – 5.3 micron cross-dispersed echelle spectrograph (up to R=80,000) and imager. Unfortunately, wedging the order sorting filters did not fix the fringing observed in the flat fields. Consequently, to reach S/N>100 more frequent flat fielding is required (for details contact your support astronomer). Commissioning observations involving radial velocities have yielded good results, with precisions better than 10 m/s achieved for targets brighter than K=10. The RV data reduction code is available on github or by request from Peter Plavchan ( The general purpose data reduction tool for iSHELL is available as part of the Spextool package. We have developed a version of Xtellcor (called Xtellcor_model) that uses atmospheric models instead of standard stars to remove telluric absorption lines in iSHELL spectra. For now we recommend that observers still take standard stars until they have compared both methods. For details see the IRTF data reduction pages. Electronic observing logs are now automatically generated. Observers are reminded that darks are automatically taken following observing and can be downloaded. Real-time spectral extraction now runs automatically in the background. For more information, see the iSHELL instrument page or contact Adwin Boogert (

MIRSI/MOC is a 5 – 20 micron camera and grism spectrograph and optical imager. MIRSI was recently upgraded by IR Labs with a closed-cycle cooler to replace its liquid nitrogen and liquid helium cryostat. First light with the upgraded instrument occurred in April 2020. Due to problems optimising array performance the current sensitivity is not useful. We are currently working with a contractor who is very experienced at optimising the performance of MIRSI’s Si:As BIB 320x240 pixel array. However, MIRSI will not be offered for observing in 2012A although, depending on progress, engineering time may be available. For more information see the MIRSI instrument page or contact John Rayner (

Proposed New IRTF Facility Instrument:

SPECTRE (Spectrograph Express) is a R=150 0.4-4 micron integral field spectrograph (IFS). For optimum efficiency the wavelength range is covered simultaneously in three channels - 0.4-0.9 micron, 0.9-2.4 micron, and 2.4-4.0 micron, and the IFS has a ~7x7 arcsec FOV to remove slit losses and to acquire absolute photometry on point sources. Object acquisition and guiding is done with a 3 arcmin FOV CCD. There are no cold mechanisms, facilitating easy and once-per-night calibration. High priority science cases include: the characterization of NEOs and small bodies, measuring fundamental stellar parameters and characterizing exoplanet hosts, optical-IR transient follow-up and variability, ISM dust and ice studies through stellar extinction measurements, spatially resolved spectroscopy (binaries), occultation spectroscopy, and spectral-spatial mapping of ice and dust in comet comae. IRTF submitted a funding proposal for SPECTRE to the preliminary round of the NSF MSIP program in December 2019 and although it was selected for the full proposal round (16 out of 41) it was not selected for funding. Reviewers did not find the science case ‘transformative’. We plan on submitting a new and improved proposal in the future. In the meantime we will be polling IRTF users about an improved science case. If you would like to contribute please contact John Rayner ( or Mike Connelley (

FELIX: new off-axis guider and low-order wavefront sensor

FELIX will replace the current off-axis telescope guider. It consists of a CCD, optics and pick-off mirror on an XY stage. The pick-off mirror patrols a U-shaped 50 square arcminute surrounding the two arcminute diameter on-axis FOV available to Cassegrain-mounted instruments. In addition to imaging a 1.8 arcminute diameter FOV, the optics can switch to a 3x3 Shack-Hartman wavefront sensor. By controlling the hexapod secondary the system will initially provide real-time focus and alignment correction. Since only slow correction is needed, closed loop correction can be done on stars to V=18 in about one minute. Aside from atmospheric seeing, defocus is currently the largest error in the telescope’s image quality budget. FELIX will be available for use with all Cassegrian-mounted facility and visitor instruments. Through the resulting better focus control we expect sensitivity improvements of up to 0.5 mags for the slit spectrographs. The design is complete and purchasing in progress. We expect FELIX to be operational by 2021. For more details contact Mike Connelley (

'Opihi: wide angle finder

'Opihi is conceived as a wide angle finder for IRTF. The goals are to acquire asteroids with large position uncertainties for SpeX and MORIS, to monitor extinction and cloud cover (like CFHT’s Skyprobe), and to provide general context imaging. ‘Opihi consists of a 17-inch diameter Planewave corrected Dall-Kirkham telescope with Andor 2k x 2k CCD array to provide a 0.5 degree FOV. ‘Opihi will mount (‘cling’) to the side of the mirror cell. We are currently investigating possible issues with the clearance of the beam at the telescope shutter. We hope to install ‘Opihi by 2021. For more details contact Mike Connelley ( or Bobby Bus (