NASA bids farewell to Spitzer telescope after 16 years

Katie Ramirez
February 2, 2020

But on Thursday, Jan. 30, engineers are signaling to Spitzer to power down, as NASA shifts resources toward the impending launch of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. And when Spitzer turned its gaze toward the centers of distant galaxies, it was able to spot infrared light from material falling into these supermassive black holes. "The advances we make across many areas in astrophysics in the future will be because of Spitzer's extraordinary legacy".

Infrared light isn't visible to the human eye but it can pass through clouds of gas and dust in some wavelengths, in a way visible light can't. Hertz said with "no guarantee" Spitzer would last until Webb's launch, the decision was made to shut it down now.

Now he will be allowed to hibernate among the stars he once studied. In 2007, researchers used Spitzer to study the infrared light from HD 189733b, an exoplanet about 60 light-years away.

Spitzer was part of a team of four space telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and Chandra X-ray Observatory. Even better, SOFIA's mirror is larger than Spitzer's (2.5 m versus 0.85 m), so it can offer better image quality in some cases than the retiring telescope. As the most sensitive infrared telescope ever constructed at the time, this enabled Spitzer to observe its surroundings in new wavelengths of light, offering us an entirely new perspective on the universe. So far, astronomers have managed to take images of a handful of exoplanets in infrared light. 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. Spitzer observed the TRAPPIST-1 system for more than 500 hours to count its planets.

Image NASA  JPL  U. Virginia
Image NASA JPL U. Virginia

However, since the telescope is so far from the Sun, NASA experts were able to keep using the space-based telescope and its retirement had been planned for 2018, when the James Webb Space Telescope was to be launched, although that mission was delayed and Spitzer's service life was prolonged.

Astrophysicist Farisa Morales at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said, "The data type Spitzer provided us was unique". The observation study of TRAPPIST-1 caused Spitzer to be recognized by the whole world.

"This little facility that was never created to study planets beyond our solar system, it totally changed the paradigm for that field in just a few short years", says Nikole Lewis, an astrophysicist at Cornell University and a member of the Spitzer oversight committee. Among its odder findings were observations that helped scientists assess the size of 'Oumuamua, which Spitzer actually couldn't see at all.

"It's like this companion that has been with me for a big fraction of my career", says Dr. Barmby. All accounts of ESO state that they may be a little over a million years old and that the R136a1 is already experiencing its "middle age" period and has already lost about a fifth of its starting mass over time or rather fifty solar masses over time.

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