Department of Astronomy Center for Radiophysics & Space Research

James R. Houck

Professor of Astronomy (ON LEAVE)
James R. Houck
Specialty Areas

Infrared and Optical Astronomy

Research Projects

Spitzer: Operation Phase of the Infrared Spectrometer of the Space Infrared Telescope Facility.


Jim Houck is the Principal Investigator for the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) instrument on Spitzer, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility formerly called SIRTF. Spitzer was launched on August 25, 2003, and is the fourth and last of NASA's Great Observatories, the others being Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO), and Advanced X-ray Astronomy Facilities (AXAF). Jim pioneered the use of mid-infrared spectrometers to determine the physical conditions inside a wide variety of astronomical objects from the giant planet Jupiter to distant galaxies. Early in his career he built infrared instruments launched on sounding rockets for brief, five minute peaks at the sky from above the atmosphere. Among the results from that work were the first discovery of the very high luminosities of star forming regions in our galaxy. These results were challenged in the literature until they were solidly confirmed by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) more than ten years later.

Jim was a member of the science team that launched IRAS in 1983. IRAS operated for 100 days, a far shorter lifetime than Spitzer's. Using IRAS data, Jim discovered a large class of sources which are very faint in the optical but bright in the infrared. These sources are distant galaxies powered by a combination of starburst activity and accretion of matter onto a central massive black hole. Galaxy collisions, or mergers, are often associated with these sources.

The IRS, which is the most used instrument on Spitzer, has been working for six years now. Members of the IRS team have published over seventy refereed papers from the data obtained from Spitzer in addition to numerous U.S. and international conference and workshop presentations. Jim's current research with it focuses on the mechanisms responsible for energy generation in ultraluminous infrared galaxies and the formation of dust in the early Universe. Recent results have shown that the most luminous sources typically contain a combination of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) and a nuclear or extended starburst. Galaxy collisions or mergers are often associated with these sources. He is involved in a number of galactic programs including the imaging of circumstellar dust shells around evolved stars, and infrared spectroscopy of planetary nebulae and recent novae.

In addition to IRAS and IRS, Jim also led the Cornell development of the state-of-the-art instrumentation for the 5-meter telescope at the Palomar Observatory. The first major instrument developed at Cornell for this site was SpectroCam, a thermal infrared camera and spectrograph operating near the diffraction limit of the telescope.

Jim is also very involved in teaching. In the Fall, he co-teaches Astro 4410 (Experimental Astronomy, previously Observational Astronomy) with two other faculty members. One of the final experiments in this course, and a perennial favorite, is to obtain a rotation curve of a spiral galaxy. Students can see the shape of the rotation curve in the raw data just seconds after the shutter closes, which gives them the basic evidence for Dark Matter. For the past two years, he has taught Astro 3332 (Elements of Astrophysics) during the Spring term. The course makes extensive use of web based materials to encourage students to dive into the sea of literature. In the past, he has co-taught Astro 671, a graduate seminar on current science with the infrared.


Jim was awarded the 2008 Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation from the American Astronomical Society. The citation states: "This award was given to Dr. James Houck (Cornell University) for his extraordinary contributions over nearly four decades to major instrumentation for infrared astronomy. From early pioneering rocket experiments and major contributions to IRAS instrumentation to most recently the design and construction of IRS for the Spitzer telescope, Dr. Houck's contributions have been seminal to making infrared astronomy among the most exciting in the entire field. Scientifically, Dr. Houck's contributions have spanned the range from HII regions to the Galactic Center to extragalactic IR sources. It is no exaggeration to say that without Dr. Houck's contributions, modern IR astronomy would never have reached its current level of maturity."

NASA has recognized Jim twice with one of its top honors, the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal. In 1984 he received it "for outstanding contributions to IRAS, including efforts in the rebuilding of the telescope focal plane assembly and continuing scientific analysis," and in 2005 for leading the successful development of the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared spectrograph.

Selected Publications
  • Elemental Abundances of Blue Compact Dwarfs from Mid-Infrared Spectroscopy with Spitzer. Y. Wu, J. Bernard-Salas, V. Charmandaris, V. Lebouteiller, L. Hao, B. R. Brandl, J. R. Houck. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 673, Issue 1, pp. 193-202 (January 2008).
  • Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxies with Spitzer: The Infrared/Radio Properties. Y. Wu, V. Charmandaris, J. R. Houck, J. Bernard-Salas, V. Lebouteiller, B. R. Brandl, D. Farrah. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 676, Issue 2, pp. 970-977 (April 2008).
  • The Nature of Star Formation in Distant Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxies Selected in a Remarkably Narrow Redshift Range. D. Farrah, C. J. Lonsdale, D. W. Weedman, H. W. W. Spoon, M. Rowan-Robinson, M. Polletta, S. Oliver, J. R. Houck, H. E. Smith. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 677, Issue 2, pp. 957-969 (April 2008).
  • Spitzer Spectra of a 10 mJy Galaxy Sample and the Star Formation Rate in the Local Universe. J. R. Houck, Weedman, D. W.; Le Floc'h, E.; Hao, Lei. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 671, Issue 1, pp. 323-332 (December 2007).
  • Mid-Infrared Galaxy Classification Based on Silicate Obscuration and PAH Equivalent Width. H. W. W. Spoon, J. A. Marshall, J. R. Houck, M. Elitzur, L. Hao, L. Armus, B. R. Brandl, V. Charmandaris. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 654, Issue 1, pp. L49-L52 (January 2007).
  • Active Galactic Nucleus and Starburst Classification from Spitzer Mid-Infrared Spectra for High-Redshift SWIRE Sources. D. Weedman, M. Polletta, C. J. Lonsdale, B. J. Wilkes, B. Siana, J. R. Houck, J. Surace, D.Shupe, D. Farrah, H. E. Smith. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 653, Issue 1, pp. 101-111 (December 2006).
  • The Mid-Infrared Properties of Starburst Galaxies from Spitzer-IRS Spectroscopy. B. R. Brandl, J. Bernard-Salas, H. W. W. Spoon, D. Devost, G. C. Sloan, S. Guilles, Y. Wu, J. R. Houck, D. W. Weedman, L. Armus, P. N. Appleton, B. T. Soifer, V. Charmandaris, L. Hao, J. A. Higdon, S. J. Marshall, T. L. Herter. The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 653, Issue 2, pp. 1129-1144 (December 2006).
  • The Extraordinary Mid-Infrared Spectrum of the Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxy SBS 0335-052. J.R. Houck, V. Charmandaris, B.R. Brandl, D. Weedman, T. Herter, L. Armus, B.T. Soifer, J. Bernard-Salas, H.W.W. Spoon, D. Devost, K.I. Uchida. Ap.J.S., 154, 211 (2004).
  • Spectroscopic Redshifts to z > 2 for Optically Obscured Sources Discovered with the Spitzer Space Telescope. J.R. Houck, B.T. Soifer, D. Weedman, S.J.U. Higdon, J.L. Higdon, T. Herter, M.J.I. Brown, A. Dey, B.T. Jannuzi, E. Le Floc'h, M. Rieke, L. Armus, V. Charmandaris, B.R. Brandl, H.I. Teplitz. Ap.J., 622, L105-L108 (2005).
  • The Extraordinary Mid-Infrared Spectrum of the Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxy SBS 0335-052. J.R. Houck, V. Charmandaris, B.R. Brandl, D. Weedman, T. Herter, L. Armus, B.T. Soifer, J. Bernard-Salas, H.W.W. Spoon, D. Devost, K.I. Uchida. Ap.J.S., 154, 211 (2004).
  • The Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) on the Spitzer Space Telescope. J.R. Houck, T.L. Roellig, J. van Cleve, W.J. Forrest, T. Herter, C.R. Lawrence, K. Matthews, H.J. Reitsema, B.T. Soifer, D.M. Watson, D. Weedman, M. Huisjen, J. Troeltzsch, D.J. Barry, J. Bernard-Salas, C.E. Blacken, B.R. Brandl, V. Charmandaris, D. Devost, G.E. Gull, P. Hall, C.P. Henderson, S.J.U. Higdon, B.E. Pirger, J. Schoenwald, G.C. Sloan, K.I. Uchida, P.N. Appleton, L. Armus, M.J. Burgdorf, S.B. Fajardo-Acosta, C.J. Grillmair, J.G. Ingalls, P.W. Morris, H.I. Teplitz. Ap.J.S., 154, 18 (2004).
  • A Mid-Infrared Spectral Survey of Galactic Wolf-Rayet Stars. J.D.T. Smith and J.R. Houck. A.J., 121, 2115 (2001).
  • CorMASS: A Compact and Efficient Near-Infrared Spectrograph for Studying Low-Mass Objects. J.C. Wilson, M.F. Skrutskie, M.R. Colonno, A.T. Enos, J.D. Smith, C.P. Henderson, J.E. Gizis, D.G. Monet, J.R. Houck. P.A.S.P., 113, 227 (2001).
  • A Very Deep IRAS Survey at L = 97 deg, B = 30 deg. P. Hacking, J. R. Houck. Ap.J. Suppl., 63, 311 (1987).
  • High Altitude Infrared Spectroscopic Evidence for Bound Water on Mars. J. R. Houck, J. B. Pollack, C. Sagan, D. Schaack, J. A. Decker. Icarus, 18 470 (1973).