NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, an instrument created to observe the interstellar dust, is now about to be retired. Previously known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, Spitzer has been renamed in honor of astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer Jr., who was one of the first people to come with the idea of using telescopes in space.
The Spitzer Space Telescope has no availability left of the cryogenic helium it utilized to cool its most delicate infrared detectors back in 2009. Since then, the instrument was limited to identifying near-infrared wavelengths, and not long ago, an independent branch of scientists ranked the space telescope at the bottom of the list of NASA‘s functional astrophysics programs. Therefore, on January 30th of this year, after 16 years of monitoring, NASA engineers will deactivate the spacecraft and end the program.
Because it is able to see in infrared, Spitzer’s abilities have been vital for NASA’s observing expeditions. The tools on board of the spacecraft have enabled researchers to gather data from regions of our Universe usually concealed by interstellar gas and dust.
In its good days, the Spitzer Space Telescope could identify very dim sources of light in infrared. It could detect infrared wavelengths from approximately 700 nanometers to about one millimeter. The spacecraft found exoplanets, brown dwarfs, and interstellar cold matter, which are way too cold to emit lots of light.
The space telescope also found a ring around Saturn that had not been identified before due to the fact the ring was composed of dust particles that visible light could not detect. Spitzer also assayed the chemical elements of dust in order to learn about the ingredients that create planets and stars. It observed planets and asteroids in our Solar System and analyzed some of the most distant galaxies ever identified.
On Thursday, engineers will, hence block Spitzer in safe mode and end the program. But even as NASA sends the disabling command, the telescope will stay in its current orbit, slowly moving away from our planet.
In the meantime, NASA will concentrate all its efforts on its new astrophysics observatory, James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2021.