Published: Sun, February 02, 2020
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope ends mission of astronomical discovery

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope ends mission of astronomical discovery

The Tarantula Nebula was one of the first celestial objects that the Spitzer telescope observed, a region of space where one of the most-studied stars in the universe - one called 1987A - exploded as a supernova in 1987 with the brightness of 100 million Suns, although because it is located 1,68,000 light years away from Earth (about one million trillion miles) it was too faint for humans to see without a telescope.

Since launching in August 2003, Spitzer has facilitated discoveries that its designers never imagined.

"It's quite unbelievable 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", stated Spitzer task researcher Michael Werner in a NASA declaration on Thursday. So, while Hubble can certainly complement Spitzer and other infrared observations, it cannot replace Spitzer's ability to chart the infrared sky. The orbiting observatory has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of the universe, using a high-sensitivity to infrared light to pull in a long-line of groundbreaking discoveries about asteroids, distant galaxies and the TRAPPIST-1 system of Earth-sized exoplanets.

'The advances we make across many areas in astrophysics in the future will be because of Spitzer's extraordinary legacy'.

NASA has now chose to put the Spitzer telescope into hibernation.

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As charter members of the telescope's instrument team, University of Rochester faculty members Bill Forrest, Judith Pipher, and Dan Watson in the Department of Physics and Astronomy were deeply involved in the design of Spitzer and two of its three instruments: the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) and the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS).

Because Spitzer could glimpse what was invisible to optical telescopes, it also revealed some surprises. So far, astronomers have managed to take images of a handful of exoplanets in infrared light.

The James Webb Space Telescope is now slated for launch in 2021. Studying the infrared light from planets in our solar system has revealed new features that weren't otherwise visible, like the batch of cyclones at Jupiter's south pole, or a massive, invisible ring around Saturn. An exoplanet may be an invisible speck next to the glare of its star in visible light, but in infrared, it stands a chance of being spotted.

NASA originally planned to decommission Spitzer a few years ago, but put off its demise as the James Webb Space Telescope, a vastly more elaborate infrared observatory, kept getting delayed.

Mike Werner, a scientist at the Spitzer Space Telescope, says the work at TRAPPIST-1 is the best characterized system outside our own Solar system. Among its odder findings were observations that helped scientists assess the size of 'Oumuamua, which Spitzer actually couldn't see at all. Spitzer's orbital period around the sun is a little longer than a year; Earth will "lap" Spitzer in 2063.

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