Home / Science / Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Operations After Scanning the Cosmos for 16 Years | Science

Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Operations After Scanning the Cosmos for 16 Years | Science

Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Operations After Scanning the Cosmos for 16 Years | Science

Jan. 31, 2020, 11:13 a.m.

Robert Hurt, a visualization scientist working for the Spitzer Space Center, is taking the decommission of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope a bit extra personally than most.

“Aside from being on the precipice of an emotional breakdown after the loss of something that’s as dear to me as a family member, I’m doing well,” he says.

Even these of us who haven’t spent our careers creating photographs of the universe from Spitzer knowledge can admire the loss. On January 30, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope concluded 16 years of infrared observations that allowed scientists to disclose a few of the most hidden areas of our universe. With a major mission of solely two-and-a-half years, Spitzer’s small measurement and effectivity propelled the telescope to exceed scientists’ expectations, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets, the composition of planetary techniques, and even the earliest star formations.

NGC 1333
NGC 1333 exhibits the beginning of a dense group of stars. Because of the area’s dusty clouds, seen mild is obscured and prevents a transparent image. But with Spitzer, scientists use infrared to see via the mud. This offers researchers a greater understanding of how sun-like stars start their lives. “You see a progression of stock stellar ages from young stars, which are well formed and in their teenage years … and then at the other extreme of the sequence, you see stellar infants, which just got out of the crib,” Werner says. “You can imagine a sequence where each generation of stars interacts with the dense cloud of dust and gas, which they’re forming to trigger the formation of the next generation of stars.”

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. A. Gutermuth (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA))

But now, as Spitzer’s batteries attain the finish of their lives, the telescope is experiencing communication obstacles and cooling difficulties. The Spitzer staff at NASA and the California Institute of Technology has no selection however to bid the spacecraft farewell.

“Spitzer has fundamentally changed astronomy textbooks,” says Sean Carey, supervisor of Spitzer’s Science Center at Caltech. “It’s told us so much about the universe in so many different aspects.”

Spitzer, considered one of NASA’s 4 “Great Observatories,” launched on August 25, 2003. The telescope value round $720 million, making it the least costly of the 4 Great Observatories launched by NASA in the 1990s and early 2000s. The others embody the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Center of Milky Way
Located 26,000 light-years away from Earth, this picture captures the core of the Milky Way galaxy. “Because there’s so much dust between us and the center, it was very hard to determine where the center of our galaxy was,” Hurt says. “If our eyes saw those wavelengths of light, you know, 5,000 years ago, we would have had a much better instinct for where we were relative to the rest of everything in our galaxy.” The center white spot is the middle of the galaxy, which marks a supermassive black gap.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/Caltech))

Spitzer is exclusive amongst these house telescopes as a result of it operates in an orbit revolving round the solar and trailing behind Earth, slightly than orbiting our planet. Its distance from Earth and the moon prevents an extra of interference of infrared radiation, the kind of sunshine that Spitzer observes, Carey says.

But as Spitzer continues to lag behind Earth, falling farther and farther away, extra effort is required to maintain its energy operating. Eventually, the spacecraft can be on the reverse facet of the solar, stopping all types of communication.

The telescope’s infrared observations are distinctive from the different Great Observatories, which function in seen and ultraviolet mild (Hubble), X-rays (Chandra), and gamma rays (Compton). Because our sky filters out infrared mild, astronomers relied on Spitzer in house to seize the deep corners of the universe. Infrared permits scientists to see objects which can be too chilly to emit a lot seen mild, in addition to areas blocked by mud clouds.

Planetary Nebula
The Helix Nebula is considered one of only some dead-star techniques the place comet survivors are discovered. These stays are positioned 700 light-years away and are a part of a category of objects known as planetary nebulae—leftovers of stars that after resembled the solar. From Spitzer’s infrared view, the white dwarf is seen as a tiny white dot in the center of the image. Spitzer additionally found a dusty disk, the vibrant crimson circle in the middle, which was in all probability gathered by comets after the demise of their star.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ok. Su (Univ. of Arizona))

Spitzer’s capacity to see chilly and distant objects made it helpful for tracing the historical past of the universe. Some of the most distant objects astronomers research can solely be seen in infrared on account of a phenomenon known as redshift. As the universe expands, and lightweight from objects like stars and galaxies travels towards us, these waves of sunshine are stretched, or “redshifted,” into the longer wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, typically arriving at Earth (or Spitzer) as infrared mild.

“In visible light, we only saw the tip of the iceberg. We only saw the part where the stars had already formed,” Hurt says. “But with Spitzer, we can see the backbone behind all of that.”

As anticipated, the telescope’s cryogen tanks depleted in 2009, ending Spitzer’s preliminary five-year “cold phase” which had all three of its science devices functioning. An prolonged mission, or “warm phase,” continued to open up home windows on the universe as considered one of the telescope’s cameras endured with out cryogenic cooling.

Sombrero Galaxy
Both Spitzer and Hubble labored collectively to create this picture of Messier 104, often known as the Sombrero galaxy. But with solely Spitzer’s infrared view, the galaxy, 28 million light-years away, seems to be much less like a sombrero and extra like a “bulls’ eye.” Using Spitzer, scientists had been in a position to observe a vibrant, easy ring of mud in crimson. Also, Spitzer detected infrared emission from each the ring and the middle of the galaxy, the place a black gap lives. Data counsel that the black gap is probably a billion instances larger than our solar.

(Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team)

Spitzer was by no means designed to analysis exoplanets, or planets that orbit different stars. But due to the telescope’s infrared capabilities, scientists have been in a position to perform a few of the first vital research probing the atmospheres of exoplanets, says Michael Werner, a venture scientist for the Spitzer Space Telescope at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Most notably, in 2017, Spitzer found 4 of the seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, a crimson dwarf star 40 light-years away. The star is orbited by extra Earth-size planets than some other identified, and these planets shined at the excellent wavelengths for Spitzer to detect.

Located 12 million light-years away in the Ursa Major constellation, Messier 82’s core is a spot of fast stellar beginning. By utilizing Spitzer’s three delicate devices, scientists can see that the galaxy is surrounded by an enormous, hidden cloud of smoky mud. “You can trace the explosion through the infrared emission, which lies above and below the plane of this galaxy,” Werner says. “We see it edge on and it almost looks like the galaxy is on fire.”

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Engelbracht (University of Arizona))

But the TRAPPIST-1 discovery merely skimmed the floor of Spitzer’s potential. The telescope imaged whole galaxies and star-forming areas, and helped create a groundbreaking 360-degree panorama of the Milky Way galaxy. Spitzer has pioneered the research of scorching Jupiters—fuel big exoplanets that orbit near their stars—and in 2009, discovered a hidden ring round Saturn. Spitzer measured the mass of stars in distant galaxies, in addition to the measurement of stellar nurseries, the place stars are born, and the leftovers from stellar explosions. The telescope’s knowledge has led to over 7,800 revealed papers, Carey says, a quantity that may proceed to extend even after its decommission.

In 2021, NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, an area telescope that may function Spitzer’s successor. “People using Webb will be looking at the Spitzer data as a source of targets that they can follow up on right away,” Werner says.

Messier 81 is positioned 12 million light-years away. It’s seen via binoculars or a small telescope. “What we’ve done with Spitzer is take images in different parts of the spectrum, which are sensitive to different structures, or processes within the galaxy,” Werner says. “And as we go out into the infrared, we start to see regions where new stars are forming, spread out on those spiral arms like ornaments on a Christmas tree.”


While Webb can be extra delicate, permitting for detailed measurements of the chemical composition and habitability of planets round TRAPPIST-1, it will likely be larger and thus much less nimble than Spitzer, Carey says. Webb will lack the capacity map giant fields of the sky effectively, and whereas the new telescope will research identified objects in unprecedented element, it gained’t be as environment friendly as discovering unknown and uncommon objects throughout the universe.

“When it [Spitzer] stops, there’s going to be a hole in my life and a hole in my heart,” Werner says. “But those holes will be filled in by not only the great scientific results in Spitzer, but by my knowledge and satisfaction in having played a central role in enabling this remarkable facility.”

This picture was captured after Spitzer ran out of cryogenic coolant, marking the finish of its chilly mission. The Orion nebula is commonly residence to colonies of younger, scorching stars. “Given that Spitzer observes in multiple bands of infrared light … you can completely change the way the nebula looks,” Hurt says. “Every time we look at it … we see something different in the data.” The vibrant spots in the center are known as the Trapezium cluster, that are the hottest stars in the area. Spitzer retains observe of the younger stars and information knowledge as they modify.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Stauffer (SSC/Caltech))

“There are going to be a lot of tears, and no small number of them will be coming from me,” Hurt says.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege,” Carey says. “I just hope that maybe I’ll be able to do something as interesting throughout the rest of my career. I’m not sure though. … At some point you peak, and I might have peaked.”

Swan Nebula
Called the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula, this star-making cloud is positioned 6,000 light-years away from Earth. “These central stars give off intense flows of expanding gas, which rush like river against dense piles of material, carving out the deep pocket at the center of the picture,” in line with NASA.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich (Univ. of Wisconsin))

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