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article imageNASA to retire Spitzer Space Telescope on January 30

By Karen Graham     Jan 26, 2020 in Science
Named in honor of astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr., who was one of the first people to propose the idea of using telescopes in space, one of NASA's most powerful space telescopes is retiring at the end of this month after an illustrious 16-year career.
Spitzer, launched on August 25, 2003, was the last of the four "Great Telescopes" group to be launched by NASA. The other three included the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990; the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which measured gamma rays from 1991-2000; and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999, which measures X-rays.
According to NASA, Spitzer was designed to study "the cold, the old and the dusty," three things astronomers can observe particularly well in infrared light. It could sense infrared wavelengths from about 700 nanometers (microscopic) to about one millimeter (the size of a pinhead).
Lyman Spitzer  Jr. - the man the Spitzer Space Telescope is named after.
Lyman Spitzer, Jr. - the man the Spitzer Space Telescope is named after.
NASA/Cal Tech
Different infrared wavelengths can reveal different features in the universe. For example, Spitzer could see things that were too cold to emit visible light, like exoplanets - the planets outside our solar system.
And speaking of "the old," Spitzer was able to study some of the most distant galaxies ever detected. What is amazing is that the light from some of these distant galaxies had to travel for billions of years to reach us. This allowed scientists to observe these galaxies as they were long, long ago.
Actually, the Spitzer telescope, working with the Hubble telescope, identified the bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. This was when the universe was less than 5 percent of its current age.
As for "The dusty," Spitzer was up to the task in seeing through the dust that is prevalent throughout most galaxies. Using a technique called spectroscopy, Spitzer analyzed the chemical composition of dust to learn about the ingredients that form planets and stars.
The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on a Delta II rocket on August 25  2003 from Cape Canaveral...
The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on a Delta II rocket on August 25, 2003 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
NASA/Cal Tech
Using spectroscopy, Spitzer detected an additional ring around the planet Saturn, made up of sparse dust particles that visible-light observatories can't see. "It's quite amazing when you lay out everything that Spitzer has done in its lifetime, from detecting asteroids in our solar system no larger than a stretch limousine to learning about some of the most distant galaxies we know of," said Michael Werner, Spitzer's project scientist.
On Thursday, NASA scientists will put Spitzer in "safe mode" and end the mission, according to Forbes. Even after ending the mission, the dead space telescope will continue in its current orbit as it slowly moves further away from Earth.
Spitzer Space Telescope s infrared cameras penetrate much of the dust  revealing the stars of the cr...
Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared cameras penetrate much of the dust, revealing the stars of the crowded galactic center region of our Milky Way.
Let's look at a few remarkable images sent back by Spitzer.
This image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Cat's Paw Nebula, so named for the large, round features that create the impression of a feline footprint. The nebula is a star-forming region in the Milky Way galaxy, located in the constellation Scorpius.
Spitzer's observations have helped scientists to understand a lot about our solar system and the planet we live on, while also discovering other planets in the universe, in distant galaxies that may be habitable.
Spitzer's observations led to the discovery of planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star. We now know that the system's seven planets are all Earth-sized and terrestrial. Three appear to be habitable.
This illustration shows what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet ...
This illustration shows what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right).
NASA/Cal Tech
In closing this chapter on NASA's Great Telescopes, we can look forward to the launch of the James Web Space Telescope, expected to be launched on March 30, 2021.
More about Spitzer Space Telescope, infrared imagery, Astrophysics, interstellar dust, Great Observatories
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