So long, Spitzer! After an unexpected long life starting in 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope mission has come to an end.
Spitzer was one of the four major telescopes launched by NASA designed to observe the universe in a specific wavelength of light. The Hubble observes in visible light, Compton observed gamma, Chandra observes X-Ray, and Spitzer studied infrared light. Making observations using different wavelengths of light put the universe in a whole different perspective; different types of light can travel through different blockades and over different distances, as well as share different information.
Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA Headquarters, notes “Spitzer taught us how important infrared light is to understanding our universe, both in our own cosmic neighborhood and as far away as the most distant galaxies…The advances we make across many areas in astrophysics in the future will be because of Spitzer’s extraordinary legacy.”
For example, infrared light can be detected much easier than visible light from cold objects (things like certain exoplanets, types of stars like brown dwarfs, and the super cold stuff between stars). Spitzer was also able to see through the large amounts of dust that exists in space and blocks visible light from making its way to our telescopes and eyes. Through this dust, Spitzer studied newly formed stars and planets, the dust of a comet, and discovered a ring around Saturn! Old objects are also more easily observed with infrared light, such as the oldest galaxy ever seen. Working with the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer studied a galaxy that is 13.4 billion years old.
While Spitzer was designed to make observations in the infrared wavelength to study distant and old objects, the telescope loved to go above and beyond. Spitzer discovered five Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, currently the system with the greatest number of rocky exoplanets! But Spitzer didn’t stop there – it also made the first detection of molecules and the first measurements of temperature and wind changes in an exoplanet’s atmosphere.
Even at its start, Spitzer was only expected to last for about 2.5 years. It lasted for more than 16! Trailing the Earth at a distance of about 168 million miles, NASA officially shut down the Spitzer telescope last week. Thank you, Spitzer, for helping to make so many incredible discoveries and paving the way for future observations of our fascinating universe!
Interested in more space stories like this one? Catch a show in LSC’s Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium, the biggest planetarium in America. A portion of our “Wonders of the Night Sky” show is always set aside for LSC Space News now stories.