NASA’S SPITZER TELESCOPE WARMS UP TO NEW CAREER
WASHINGTON — The primary mission of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is about to end after more than five and a half years of probing the cosmos with its keen infrared eye. Within about a week of May 12, the telescope is expected to run out of the liquid helium needed to chill some of its instruments to operating temperatures.
The end of the coolant will begin a new era for Spitzer. The telescope will start its “warm” mission with two channels of one instrument still working at full capacity. Some of the science explored by a warm Spitzer will be the same, and some will be entirely new.
“We like to think of Spitzer as being reborn,” said Robert Wilson, Spitzer project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “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 is the last of NASA’s Great Observatories, a suite of telescopes designed to see the visible and invisible colors of the universe. The suite also includes NASA’s Hubble and Chandra space telescopes. Spitzer has explored, with unprecedented sensitivity, the infrared side of the cosmos, where dark, dusty and distant objects hide.
For a telescope to detect infrared light — essentially heat — from cool cosmic objects, it must have very little heat of its own. During the past five years, liquid helium has run through Spitzer’s “veins,”
keeping its three instruments chilled to -456 degrees Fahrenheit
(-271 Celsius), or less than 3 degrees above absolute zero, the coldest temperature theoretically attainable. The cryogen was projected to last as little as two and a half years, but Spitzer’s efficient design and careful operations enabled it to last more than five and a half years.
Spitzer’s new “warm” temperature is still quite chilly at -404 degrees Fahrenheit (-242 Celsius), much colder than a winter day in Antarctica when temperatures sometimes reach -75 degrees Fahrenheit
(-59 Celsius). This temperature rise means two of Spitzer’s instruments — its longer wavelength multiband imaging photometer and its infrared spectrograph — will no longer be cold enough to detect cool objects in space.
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