Spitzer, the Sequel
Tuesday, September 22 2009 @ 05:02 pm EDT
Contributed by: dgrosvold
The Spitzer Space Telescope is getting a second chance at life.
The “warm mission” of the Spitzer Space Telescope will still be able to use two sensors in its Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) to continue its observations of the infrared universe.
The liquid helium “lifeblood” that flows through the telescope has finally run out, bringing Spitzer's primary mission to an end. But a new phase of this infrared telescope's exploration of the universe is just beginning.
Even without liquid helium, which cooled the telescope to about 2 degrees above absolute zero (-271°C), Spitzer will continue to do important research — some of which couldn't easily be done during its primary mission. For example, scientists will use Spitzer's “second life” to explore the rate of expansion of the universe, study variable stars, and search for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet.
“We always knew that a 'warm phase' of the mission was a possibility, but it became ever more exciting scientifically as we started to plan for it seriously,” says JPL's Michael Werner, Project Scientist for Spitzer. “Spitzer is just going on and on like the Energizer bunny.”
Launched in August 2003 as the last of NASA's four Great Observatories, Spitzer specializes in observing infrared light, which is invisible to normal, optical telescopes.
That gives Spitzer the power to see relatively dark, cool objects such as planet-forming discs or nearby asteroids. These objects are too cold to emit light at visible wavelengths, but they're still warm enough to emit infrared light.
In fact, all warm objects “glow” with infrared light — even telescopes. That's why Spitzer had to be cooled with liquid helium to such a low temperature. Otherwise, it would be blinded by its own infrared glow.
As the helium expires, Spitzer will warm to about 30 degrees above absolute zero (–243°C). At that temperature, the telescope will begin emitting long-wavelength infrared light, but two of its short-wavelength sensors will still work perfectly.
And with more telescope time available for the remaining sensors, mission managers can more easily schedule new research proposals designed for those sensors. For example, scientists have recently realized how to use infrared observations to improve our measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe. And interest in tracking near-Earth objects has grown in recent years — a task for which Spitzer is well suited.
“Science has progressed, and people always have new ideas,” Werner says. In its second life, Spitzer will help turn those ideas into new discoveries.
For kids, The Space Place Web site has a fun typing game using Spitzer and infrared astronomy words. Check it out at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/signs.
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.