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Looking Back: Spitzer Space Telescope Turns 10
Looking Back: Spitzer Space Telescope Turns 10

As one of NASA's most important telescopes, the Spitzer Space Telescope has accomplished more than anybody expected in the past 10 years, and its future looks equally bright.

It's hard to believe, but it has been 10 years since NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope began its voyage of discovery. It has gone down in history as the fourth of the space agency's four Great Observatories, and still continues to delight, amaze and educate us with its infrared eye trained on the faraway sky.

For over a decade, the Spitzer Space Telescope has observed both comets and asteroids like we've never seen before. It has counted and labeled stars, taken in-depth looks at the planets, delivered new and exciting views of distant galaxies and even revealed the presence of soccer-ball-sized carbon spheres known as buckyballs. Now the Spitzer is about to embark on its next 10 year mission - a voyage where it will conduct its scientific sleuthing from an Earth-trailing orbit. One of the most exciting of these projects will be to assist NASA in selecting potential candidates to enable one of the latest scientific missions - to capture, redirect and study a near-Earth asteroid.

The Spitzer Space Telescope pre-launch. NASA -JPL - CALTECH
The Spitzer Space Telescope pre-launch. NASA -JPL - CALTECH

"President Obama's goal of visiting an asteroid by 2025 combines NASA's diverse talents in a unified endeavor," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington. "Using Spitzer to help us characterize asteroids and potential targets for an asteroid mission advances both science and exploration."

What makes the Spitzer so special? Through the use of infrared technology, it allows us to observe the cold, distant, and very dusty side of the Universe. Historical observations include the study of Comet Tempel 1, the subject of the 2005 NASA Deep Impact Mission. During this run, Spitzer imparted the information that Tempel 1's make-up was similar to other solar systems. This clever telescope also rocked the astronomical world when it discovered the largest of Saturn's rings - an ethereal halo of ice and dust which was nearly invisible to optical telescopes. Despite its faint qualities, this new ring was instantly visible to Spitzer's infrared detectors, thanks to its heat signature.

However, Spitzer's discoveries aren't limited to "home." It was the first telescope to detect light emanating from a planet outside our solar system? a discovery which the Spitzer wasn't designed for. Thanks to these unforeseen capabilities, the telescope is able to study the atmospheres of exoplanets and examine their composition. Not only has the infrared capabilities of this amazing telescope been of service in planetary capacities, it has also played a major role in taking a stellar census in star-forming regions and creating an improved map of the Milky Way's spiral structure.

Along with the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer has also aided in studying distant galaxies and showing their structures are larger and more evolved than hypothesized. In about a month, the telescope will begin its initial observations of 2009 DB, a small near-Earth asteroid which is being considered for future missions. These studies will determine its size and assist NASA in becoming knowledgeable about the possible candidates for the capture and redirect mission.

"I always knew Spitzer would work, but I had no idea that it would be as productive, exciting and long-lived as it has been," said Spitzer project scientist Michael Werner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who helped conceive the mission. "The spectacular images that it continues to return, and its cutting-edge science, go far beyond anything we could have imagined when we started on this journey more than 30 years ago."

A montage of images taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope over the years. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A montage of images taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope over the years. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And far-ranging vision is what it's all about. Originally named the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, the telescope was renamed after launch in honor of late astronomer, Lyman Spitzer.

"The father of space telescopes, Lyman Spitzer began campaigning to put telescopes in space, away from the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere, as early as the 1940s. His efforts also led to the development and deployment of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, carried to orbit by the space shuttle in 1990."

Spitzer wasn't alone. Before the launch of the Hubble, NASA conceived the Great Observatories Program - a mission set to put four telescopes into space which would cover a variety of wavelengths - the Hubble, the Spitzer, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the now gone Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

"The majority of our Great Observatory fleet is still up in space, each with its unique perspective on the cosmos," said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA headquarters in Washington. "The wisdom of having space telescopes that cover all wavelengths of light has been borne out by the spectacular discoveries made by astronomers around the world using Spitzer and the other Great Observatories."

There have been hurdles to overcome during the last 10 years, however. In 2009, Spitzer depleted its coolant reserve needed to keep its longer-wavelength instruments operational. It is now operating under what is called the "warm mission phase." Even after so many years, the telescope continues to perform above and beyond expectation.


"I get very excited about the serendipitous discoveries in areas we never anticipated," said Dave Gallagher, Spitzer's project manager at JPL from 1999 to 2004, reminding him of a favorite quote from Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Original Story Source: NASA Spitzer Mission News Release

About Tammy Plotner - Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She has received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Date Taken: 09/09/2013
Author: Tammy Plotner

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