Spitzer Celebrates 10 Years In Space, More To Come
August 24, 2013

Spitzer Space Telescope Set To Begin Second Decade Of Service

[ Watch the Video: Spitzer Space Telescope: 10 Years of Innovation ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope will celebrate its 10th anniversary of scientific research on Sunday, the US space agency announced on Friday.

Since launching on August 25, 2003, the orbiting infrared observatory has studied various comets and asteroids, analyzed planets and galaxies, counted stars and even discovered the existence of the carbon spheres known as “bucky balls” in a solid form in space for the first time, NASA astronomers explained in a statement.

“Moving into its second decade of scientific scouting from an Earth-trailing orbit, Spitzer continues to explore the cosmos near and far,” officials from the space agency said. “One additional task is helping NASA observe potential candidates for a developing mission to capture, redirect and explore a near-Earth asteroid.”

“President Obama's goal of visiting an asteroid by 2025 combines NASA's diverse talents in a unified endeavor,” added John Grunsfeld, the organization’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “Using Spitzer to help us characterize asteroids and potential targets for an asteroid mission advances both science and exploration.”

This summer alone, Spitzer has helped scientists discover a young stellar system that contained three developing stars that work together like a hula hoop, observed strong carbon dioxide emissions from Comet ISON ahead of its anticipated pass through the inner solar system later on this year, and captured images revealing blooming stars at the fringe of the Milky Way.

In addition, the observatory’s infrared vision allowed it to analyze the comet known as Tempel 1. The telescope also stunned the global scientific community by discovering the largest of Saturn’s many rings – a wispy band of ice and dust particles that is very faint in visible light, but which had a glow from its heat that could be picked up by Spitzer’s infrared detectors.

Perhaps its most astonishing finds, however, involved the discovery of light coming from a world located outside our solar system. This discovery was not part of the mission’s original design. However, because of Spitzer's ongoing studies of these exotic worlds, astronomers have been able to probe their composition, dynamics and more. The telescope’s results have helped to revolutionize the study of exoplanet atmospheres, NASA said.

“Other discoveries and accomplishments of the mission include getting a complete census of forming stars in nearby clouds; making a new and improved map of the Milky Way's spiral-arm structure; and… discovering that the most distant galaxies known are more massive and mature than expected,” they added.

“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 Michael Werner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a Spitzer project scientist and one of the men 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.”

Coming up in October, Spitzer is scheduled to attempt infrared observations of a small near-Earth asteroid known as 2009 DB. NASA officials hope that those observations will help them learn more about its size – information that, in turn, will be used to help the agency better understand potential candidates for the agency's asteroid capture and redirection mission. Asteroid 2009 DB is one of several candidates being evaluated by NASA.

Originally known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, Spitzer was renamed following its launch in honor of late astronomer Lyman Spitzer. Spitzer was an astrophysicist who is credited with major contributions in the fields of stellar dynamics, plasma physics, thermonuclear fusion, and space astronomy. He was also the first person to propose the idea of putting a large telescope in space, and was the driving force behind the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.