NASA Is Turning Off the Spitzer Space Telescope Forever After 16 Years in Space – Find Out Why

Thursday, 23 January 2020 - 9:33AM
Space
Thursday, 23 January 2020 - 9:33AM
NASA Is Turning Off the Spitzer Space Telescope Forever After 16 Years in Space – Find Out Why
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Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA is preparing to decommission the Spitzer Space Telescope after over a decade spent studying the Universe in infrared light.


"Spitzer taught us how important infrared light is to understanding our universe, both in our own cosmic neighborhood and as far away as the most distant galaxies," explained Paul Hertz in a statement. Hertz is the director of astrophysics at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The advances we make across many areas in astrophysics in the future will be because of Spitzer's extraordinary legacy."





The Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth and final of NASA's Great Observatories Program. It launched in August 2003 to study "the cold, the old, and the dusty" – three things that show up vividly in infrared light, which is what Spitzer can "see." Some things in space are too cold to give off much visible light – things like exoplanets and brown dwarf stars are cold enough to be invisible to telescopes like Hubble, which uses visible light to map the stars.


With Spitzer, we made discoveries like finding the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, when the telescope spotted seven rocky Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a small, cold star. It also studied clouds of dust and gas surrounding stars as they form – the kind of clouds that are big enough to give birth to new planets which form in their dust.


"It's quite amazing when you lay out everything that Spitzer has done in its lifetime, from detecting asteroids in our solar system no larger than a stretch limousine to learning about some of the most distant galaxies we know of," remarked Michael Werner, Spitzer's project scientist.


Since Spitzer sees in infrared light, it was built to operate at extremely cold temperatures so as not to cloud its own "eyesight." (Conversely, the equipment used to monitor the telescope has to stay near room temperature.) In 2009, the coolant finally ran out – and it was the beginning of the end for Spitzer.


NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope as a successor to Spitzer. Technology has developed by leaps and bounds since 2003, and Webb features the best of it: the new telescope packs nine new technologies and features a gold-coated beryllium mirror. NASA estimates that it is about 1,000 times more powerful than Spitzer.


"Webb will take inspiration from Spitzer…to learn more about the role of galactic mergers, bursts of star formation and the growth of supermassive black holes in galactic evolution over cosmic time," noted Lee Armus, who will lead an observing program for Webb at Caltech.


NASA technicians will officially decommission Spitzer and cease all operations on January 30, 2020.


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