NASA redefines Spitzer Space Telescope mission

Posted by Aharon Etengoff

Chicago (IL) - NASA has confirmed that the Spitzer Space Telescope will end its primary mission after running out of liquid helium.

During the past five years, liquid helium has kept three infrared instruments chilled to -456 degrees Fahrenheit (-271 Celsius), or less than 3 degrees above absolute zero.

Spitzer's new "warm" temperature is expected to hover at -404 degrees Fahrenheit (-242 Celsius). However, the temperature increase will effectively disable two of Spitzer's instruments - a (longer) wavelength multiband imaging photometer and infrared spectrograph. As such, the telescope will operate with two channels of one infrared array camera functioning at full capacity.

This will enable Spitzer to detect glows from a variety of celestial objects, including asteroids, dusty stars, planet-forming disks, gas-giant planets and distant galaxies. In addition, the spacecraft will help scientists study potentially hazardous asteroids and search for galaxies at the edge of the universe.

"We like to think of Spitzer as being reborn," explained Robert Wilson, Spitzer project manager at NASA. "Spitzer led an amazing life, performing above and beyond its call of duty. Its primary mission might be over, but it will tackle new scientific pursuits, and more breakthroughs are sure to come."

Spitzer Project Scientist Michael Werner expressed similar sentiments.

"We will do exciting and important science with these two infrared channels. Our new science program takes advantage of what these channels do best. We're focusing on aspects of the cosmos that we still have much to learn about."

The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on Aug. 25, 2003. Since then, the telescope has observed numerous comets, photographed dusty stellar nests and identified hundreds of massive black holes. Spitzer has also managed to discover exoplanets, which are typically located too close to parent stars to be visible from Earth.

"Nobody had any idea Spitzer would be able to directly study exoplanets when we designed it," added Warner. "When astronomers planned the first observations, we had no idea if they would work. To our amazement and delight, they did."

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