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Spitzer celebrates ten years looking at the dark side of our universe

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Aug 25, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Launched on August 25 2003 NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) is now celebrating ten years of illuminating the dark side of the cosmos with its infrared eyes.

Spitzer, originally called the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, was renamed after its launch in honor of the late astronomer Lyman Spitzer. Considered the father of space telescopes, Lyman Spitzer began campaigning to put telescopes in space, away from the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere, as early as the 1940s. His efforts also led to the development and deployment of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, carried to orbit by the space shuttle in 1990.

In anticipation of the Hubble launch, NASA set up the Great Observatories program to fly a total of four space telescopes designed to cover a range of wavelengths: Hubble, Spitzer, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the now-defunct Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

Spitzer's new view of the Sculptor galaxy combines data from two detectors .
Top right: in shorter infrared light the disk, spiral arms and central bar are easy to see.
Lower right: the glow of dust at longer infrared wavelengths in green and red. Regions of star formation glow bright at the longest wavelengths (red). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spitzer's infrared vision lets it see the far, cold and dusty side of the universe. The telescope has studied comets and asteroids, counted stars, scrutinized planets and galaxies, and discovered soccer-ball-shaped carbon spheres in space called buckyballs.

When comet Tempel 1 was hit by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005, Spitzer showed the composition of Tempel 1 resembled that of solar systems beyond our own.

Spitzer also surprised the world by discovering the largest of Saturn's many rings. The enormous ring, a wispy band of ice and dust particles, is very faint in visible light, but Spitzer's infrared detectors were able to pick up the glow from its heat.

The telescope was the first to detect light coming from a planet outside our solar system, a feat not in the mission's original design. With Spitzer's ongoing studies of these exotic worlds, astronomers have been able to probe their composition, dynamics and more, revolutionizing the study of exoplanet atmospheres.

Spitzer also obtained  a complete census of forming stars in nearby clouds; making a  new and improved map of the Milky Way's spiral-arm structure; and, with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, discovering that the most distant galaxies known are more massive and mature than expected.

Spitzer ran out of the coolant needed to chill its longer-wavelength instruments in 2009, and entered the so-called warm mission phase.

Moving into its second decade of scientific scouting from an Earth-trailing orbit, Spitzer continues to explore the cosmos near and far. In October, Spitzer will attempt infrared observations of a small near-Earth asteroid named 2009 DB to better determine its size, a study that will assist NASA in understanding potential candidates for the agency's asteroid capture and redirection mission.

John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington, said "Using Spitzer to help us characterize asteroids and potential targets for an asteroid mission advances both science and exploration."

"I always knew Spitzer would work, but I had no idea that it would be as productive, exciting and long-lived as it has been," said Spitzer project scientist Michael Werner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who helped conceive the mission. "The spectacular images that it continues to return, and its cutting-edge science, go far beyond anything we could have imagined when we started on this journey more than 30 years ago."