The Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) is an infrared space telescope launched in 2003, its mission ongoing. It is the final installation of NASA’s Great Observatories Program, following the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory operates and manages the SST alongside the Spitzer Science Center at the Caltech University Campus in Pasadena, California. Spitzer launched on August 25, 2003 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida, trailing Earth on a unique heliocentric orbit to allow for an alternate perspective than other space observatories on a geocentric orbit.
The concept of an infrared telescope traces back to the early 1970s, when astronomers considered creating such a device to provide a clear view unobstructed by Earth’s atmosphere, which prevents gamma rays, x-rays, and infrared radiation from reaching the surface (thankfully for us humans). Scientists at NASA envisioned several projects which led to the 1983 launch of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, the early model of the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (IRAS), Spitzer’s predecessor. During its IRAS days, the observatory became the first ever space telescope to survey the entire night sky using infrared wavelengths.
On December 18, 2003, following a successful demonstration, NASA renamed the telescope in a contest open to the public, honoring the late Lyman Spitzer, a pioneer of modern astronomy and rocketry who originally promoted the idea and advantages of an extraterrestrial observatory in the 1940s. Total costs of the Spitzer project exceeded $720 million. Spitzer houses three instruments: the Infrared Array Camera, Infrared Spectograph, and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer (MIPS). These powerful gadgets capture amazing images of the Cosmos from glowing stellar nurseries to distant galaxies and nebulae through various perspectives. The Spitzer Space Telescope became the first telescope to capture light from gas giant exoplanet and locally discovered an unknown ring around Saturn called the Phoebe Ring.
In 2004, astronomers at the University of Texas, Austin utilizing Spitzer’s advanced design discovered the youngest star ever observed hidden within a Dark Nebula designated L1014, previously invisible to ground based observatories and preceding technology. In 2015, Spitzer shattered all expectations with the discovery of HD219134 b, then the exoplanets in the Trappist-1 System in 2016, several located within the habitable zone. Researchers never envisioned Spitzer as an exoplanet hunter, finding themselves ecstatic by the craft’s evolution, validating the philosophy to design and construct technology even advanced space telescopes as general as possible.
Images below Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
ABOVE: The Helix Nebula in Infrared. BELOW: W40, Red Butterfly Star Nursery Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
M31, The Andromeda Galaxy, our closest neighbor, in infrared. The 24-micron mosaic is the sharpest image ever taken of the dust in another spiral galaxy.
With an expected usefulness of a mere 2.5 years, the Spitzer Space Telescope continues its monumental work, imaging distant phenomenon, discovering far off worlds, and unraveling the mysteries of the Cosmos. The future of astronomy and space exploration will build upon the successes of Spitzer, as mankind continues extending its reach into the stars.