Goodbye Spitzer: NASA Retires Space Telescope After 16 Years of Service

After 16 years of service, NASA has retired the Spitzer Space Telescope.

After having studied the mysterious the universe has to offer in infrared light for more than 16 years, helping understand the wonders of our own solar system, the galaxy and beyond, NASA has retired its famous Spitzer space telescope (SST).

Mission engineers confirmed, at 5:30 p.m. (EST) on January 30, 2020, that the space telescope went into a fail-safe mode, ceasing all scientific operations.

“The mission is officially over,” said Joseph Hunt, project manager.

Launched in 2003, the US$720 million telescope became one of NASA’s four big eyes, along with Hubble, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Compton gamma-ray observatory, in a program that displayed the power to use different wavelengths of light to create a more complete picture of the universe around us. The Spitzer space telescope is the only one of the Great Observatories not launched by the Space Shuttle, as was originally intended.

“Spitzer has taught us about entirely new aspects of the cosmos and taken us many steps further in understanding how the universe works, addressing questions about our origins, and whether or not are we alone,” revealed Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“This Great Observatory has also identified some important and new questions and tantalizing objects for further study, mapping a path for future investigations to follow. Its immense impact on science certainly will last well beyond the end of its mission.”

The Cepheus C & B Regions. – The Spitzer Space Telescope (30 May 2019). Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Wikimedia Commons.
The Cepheus C & B Regions. – The Spitzer Space Telescope (30 May 2019). Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Wikimedia Commons.

During its extended mission period, the space telescope made a plethora of images and observations of the universe. The first cosmic images captured by the SST were meant to show off the capabilities of the telescope and exposed a glowing stellar nursery; a big swirling, dusty galaxy; a disc of planet-forming debris; as well as organic material in the distant universe.

One of its most notorious observations took place in 2005 when Spitzer became the first space telescope to directly capture light emitted by distant exoplanets; the “hot Jupiters” HD 209458 b and TrES-1b.

The SST has also helped astronomers understand how planets are formed thanks to another discovery from 2015, then SST discovered that Cohen-kuhi Tau/4–a pre-main-sequence binary T Tauri star system in the constellation Taurus–had a planetary disk that was much younger and contained less mass than previously theorized.

Furthermore, between September and October of 2016, the Space telescope was directly involved in the discovery of five of the total seven known planets orbiting the star known as TRAPPIST-1.

All of the planets in orbit around TRAPPIST-1 are believed to be approximately the size of Earth and are most likely all rocky. Three of these planets are located within the so-called habitable zone, which means they meet the necessary requirements to host liquid water on their surface and probably support life as we know it.

“Everyone who has worked on this mission should be extremely proud today,” Hunt said.

“There are literally hundreds of people who contributed directly to Spitzer’s success, and thousands who used its scientific capabilities to explore the universe. We leave behind a powerful scientific and technological legacy.”

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