NASA sent its final command to the Spitzer Space Telescope today, ending more than 16 years spent studying alien planets, dusty nebulas and distant galaxies in infrared wavelengths.
- Spitzer was launched in 2003 as one of NASA’s Great Observatories, and took its place in the ranks of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. It was named after the late astronomer Lyman Spitzer Jr., who’s credited with the idea of putting telescopes in space, beyond the obscuring effects of Earth’s atmosphere. Spitzer was built to look through the dust surrounding infant stars and planets, keying in on the infrared glow within. Among other things, it detected a previously unknown ring of ice and dust around Saturn.
- Spitzer’s most surprising finds came in a field that hardly existed when it was launched: the study of exoplanets. The best-known targets of its attention include the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, which is thought to include potentially habitable worlds; and Tabby’s Star, whose dimming led some astronomers to suggest it might be surrounded by an alien megastructure. (After analyzing Spitzer data, they decided a cloud of dust was a more likely explanation.)
- Today the telescope team’s Twitter account traced each step of Spitzer’s shutdown, climaxing with a command that put the 1-ton spacecraft into safe mode. Loss of signal was confirmed at 2:30 p.m. PT. The telescope is currently in a stable orbit around the sun, about 160 million miles from Earth, and will remain in space undisturbed. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is due to pick up the baton for infrared observations in 2021 (although the appointed date may be in doubt). In the meantime, there’s a virtual-reality experience that gives you a Spitzer’s-eye view of the cosmos.