NASA turns off its Spitzer space telescope after 16 years of service

RIP Spitzer: NASA bids an emotional farewell to its infrared space telescope that has been capturing stunning images of the Milky Way and cradles of newborn stars for over 16 years

  • NASA scientists have declared the mission of the Spitzer space telescope over after 16 years of service
  • The legendary infrared space telescope was placed in safe mode on Thursday, ceasing all science operations 
  • Since its launch in 2003 it discovered Saturn’s largest ring and discovered  planets beyond our solar system
  • Spitzer was one of four Great Observatories telescopes released between 1990-2003 to study the universe in by capturing different waves of light  

NASA has said a final goodbye to its Spitzer Space Telescope, which has been decommissioned after more than 16 years of service. 

NASA mission control downloaded the last Spitzer data and sent through a command to enter safe mode on Thursday, ceasing all scientific operations.

At 2:34 pm PST (10:24pm GMT) on Thursday, Spitzer Project Manager Joseph Hunt declared the spacecraft officially decommissioned, bringing its mission to an end.

The telescope, which focused on capturing infrared images, launched in 2003 and was operational for 16-and-a-half years, despite only being planned to serve for five.

The spacecraft’s most memorable achievements include the discovery of Saturn’s largest ring and four TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, as well as mapping the extensive portraits of the Milky Way. 

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NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has concluded after more than 16 years of exploring the universe in infrared light

Newborn stars peek out from beneath their natal blanket of dust in this dynamic image of the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud from NASA’s Spitzer in 2008

‘Spitzer has taught us about entirely new aspects of the cosmos and taken us many steps further in understanding how the universe works, addressing questions about our origins, and whether or not are we alone,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

‘This Great Observatory has also identified some important and new questions and tantalising objects for further study, mapping a path for future investigations to follow. 

‘Its immense impact on science certainly will last well beyond the end of its mission.’

Among its contributions over 16 years, Spitzer studied comets and asteroids in our Solar System and found a previously unidentified ring around Saturn in 2009 – the planet’s largest.

In 2007, Spitzer also captured enough light from planets outside our atmosphere – known as exoplanets – to identify molecules in their atmosphere.

Spitzer obtained data for two different gas exoplanets, called HD 209458b and HD 189733b – around 159 and 64.5 light years away from our Solar System, respectively.

The exoplanets, dubbed ‘hot Jupiters’ are made of gas, but orbit much closer to their suns than the Jupiter in our own Solar System.

Last year, Spitzer data provided NASA scientists with information of the conditions on a rocky exoplanet called LHS 3844b, 1.3 times the mass of Earth and 48.6 light-years from our home planet. 

This artist’s illustration depicts the exoplanet LHS 3844b, which is 1.3 times the mass of Earth and orbits an M dwarf star – stars that are smaller, dimmer and cooler than stars like our Sun

This infrared image from Spitzer shows the Helix nebula, a cosmic starlet often photographed by amateur astronomers for its vivid colours and eerie resemblance to a giant eye

SPITZER BY NUMBERS 

1 of NASA’s four Great Observatories

3 scientific instruments on board

85cm telescope mirror

16.4 years in space

More than 36.5 million raw images taken

Furthest objects seen as they appeared 13.4 billion years ago 

90.1 per cent observing efficiency 

As of January 30, 2020

Source: NASA 

Spitzer also captured images of spectacular images of star systems and dust clouds, including the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud ‘cradling’ newborn stars and the Cat’s Paw nebula. 

It also provided an extensive 360-degree mosaic of our Milky Way galaxy, compiling more than 2 million images collected over the course of 10 years.

But Spitzer’s best-known work, NASA said, may be detecting and determining the mass and densities of the seven Earth-size planets orbiting the TRAPPIST-1 star, back in 2017.

Spitzer discovered the four of the exoplanets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 after the first three were discovered in 2015 using a pair of Belgian optic robotic telescopes. 

Spitzer’s discovery made the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 the largest number of rocky planets ever found orbiting a single star. 

An artist’s impression of the various exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 star system. Earth may not be the best planet for life —  some exoplanets orbiting distant stars, including the seven rocky TRAPPIST-1 planets discovered by Spitzer, have the potential to host a more diverse and abundant array of life

This artist’s conception shows a nearly invisible ring around Saturn – the largest of the giant planet’s many rings, discovered by Spitzer 

In 2016, NASA had decided to shut down Spitzer in 2018 in anticipation of the launch of the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope entering service.

However, when the launch of James Webb was postponed yet again, Spitzer was granted an extension to its operations until 2020.

THE FOUR GREAT OBSERVATORIES TELESCOPES 

Hubble Space Telescope (1990-) observes visible light and near-ultraviolet.

Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (1991-2000) observed gammas rays and hard x-rays.

Chandra X-ray Observatory (1999-) observes soft x-rays. 

Spitzer Space Telescope (2003-2020) observed the infrared spectrum. 

‘Everyone who has worked on this mission should be extremely proud today,’ Hunt said. 

‘There are literally hundreds of people who contributed directly to Spitzer’s success, and thousands who used its scientific capabilities to explore the universe. 

‘We leave behind a powerful scientific and technological legacy.’

Spitzer’s prime mission came to an end in 2009, when the telescope exhausted its supply of the liquid helium coolant necessary for operating two of its three instruments.

However, scientists were able to keep the mission going using third instrument, the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), until 2020.

One of Spitzer’s final acts was to snap a stunning view of the Tarantula Nebula – the first target it was given to observe after its initial launch near the start of the century.

The high-resolution image of the star-forming region – named for its spidery filaments of gas – is made up of data from several observations by the telescope.

The Tarantula Nebula shows of the full breadth of Spitzer’s capabilities, according to project scientist Michael Werner from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in California

Spitzer Project Manager Joseph Hunt stands in Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on Thursday, declaring the spacecraft decommissioned and the Spitzer mission concluded

Scientists say they expect researchers to continue making discoveries with Spitzer long after the spacecraft’s decommissioning.

Spitzer was one of NASA’s four Great Observatories – large, powerful space-based astronomical telescopes that were launched between 1990 and 2003.

The fab four – Spitzer, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra x-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope – were each built to specifically observe regions of the light spectrum.

Satellite light readings can allow scientists to discern the mass and size of stars in other galaxies and their planets that pass in front of them. 

The Great Observatories program demonstrated the power of using different wavelengths of light to create a fuller picture of the universe, NASA said.  

Of the four, only the Hubble and the Chandra now remain active, as the Compton was decommissioned in 2000.

All of Spitzer’s data is free and available to the public in the Spitzer data archive.

WHAT IS THE SPRITZER SPACE TELESCOPE?

The Spitzer Space Telescope – formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility – is an infrared cousin of the Hubble Space Telescope.

It consists of a space-borne, cryogenically cooled telescope with lightweight optics that deliver light to advanced, large-format infrared detector arrays 

It is capable of studying objects ranging from our solar system to the distant reaches of the universe. 

Peering back into the early universe, it looks at young galaxies and forming stars.

The Spitzer Space Telescope – formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility – is an infrared cousin of the Hubble Space Telescope (artist’s impression). The band of light in this image is the glowing dust from the Milky Way seen at 100 microns

It is also used to detect dust disks around stars, considered an important signpost of planetary formation.

The mission is the fourth and final observatory under NASA’s Great Observatories program.

This mission also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.  

It was launched into orbit around the sun, trailing behind Earth, drifting in a benign thermal environment.

By using this orbit, the spacecraft is able to adopt an innovative “warm-launch” architecture, in which only the instrument payload is cooled at launch. 

By using special cooling in deep space, Spitzer is able to carry far less liquid helium than any previous infrared mission, which substantially reduces mission development costs.

 

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