The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

Today, after 16 years of exemplary service, NASA will officially deactivate the Spitzer Space Telescope. Operating for over a decade beyond its designed service lifetime, the infrared observatory worked in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal previously hidden details of known cosmic objects and helped expand our understanding of the universe. In later years, despite never being designed for the task, it became an invaluable tool in the study of planets outside our own solar system.

While there’s been no cataclysmic failure aboard the spacecraft, currently more than 260 million kilometers away from Earth, the years have certainly taken their toll on Spitzer. The craft’s various technical issues, combined with its ever-increasing distance, has made its continued operation cumbersome. Rather than running it to the point of outright failure, ground controllers have decided to quit while they still have the option to command the vehicle to go into hibernation mode. At its distance from the Earth there’s no danger of it becoming “space junk” in the traditional sense, but a rogue spacecraft transmitting randomly in deep space could become a nuisance for future observations.

From mapping weather patterns on a planet 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major to providing the first images of Saturn’s largest ring, it’s difficult to overstate the breadth of Spitzer’s discoveries. But these accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider the mission’s storied history, from its tumultuous conception to the unique technical challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

A Scope for the Shuttle

While the Spitzer Space Telescope might have been launched in 2003, its origins date back to the Apollo era. As NASA’s ability to launch large payloads into space improved, astronomers began to consider the possibility of an orbiting infrared observatory. An IR telescope in space would vastly outperform a similarly sized telescope on Earth due to the fact that most of the infrared radiation from space is absorbed by water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While it would be a considerable technical challenge to build, launch, and operate such a telescope, there was no question it would be able to do more useful science than anything that could be built on the ground.

Concept art from the Hughes design study.

In 1976, Hughes Aircraft Corporation released their preliminary design study for the Shuttle Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), a cryogenically cooled IR telescope that would be mounted inside the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle. Thanks to the promised rapid reusability of the Shuttle, the SIRFT could be regularly upgraded and reflown to take advantage of improvements in IR imaging technology.

Unfortunately, the reality of the Space Shuttle program turned out to be very different than what was originally envisioned. Rather than launching regularly and cheaply like a commercial airliner, the Shuttle ended up being just as slow and expensive a ride into space as more traditional rockets. To make matters worse, experiments performed during the STS-51-F mission showed that IR observations made from the Shuttle were complicated by the aura of dust and heat that surrounded the winged orbiter.

By the mid-80s, it became clear SIRTF wasn’t going to work as a part of the Shuttle. It would need to be a free-flying instrument, which naturally made the design considerably more complex. SIRTF would not only have to fit onto a smaller rocket, but it would also need to have its own means of communication, propulsion, navigation, and power generation.

Beating the Heat

Throughout the 1990s, the SIRTF concept went through several revisions. Now called Space Infrared Telescope Facility to differentiate itself from the earlier Shuttle-centric design, the new telescope needed to be small and light enough to be carried on a Delta II rocket. Optimizing a design for spaceflight is never easy, but in the case of the SIRTF, it posed some unique challenges.

For optimal performance, the IR sensors would need to be cooled down to near absolute zero. This means a cryogenic coolant and insulation, which adds mass and bulk to the spacecraft. The easiest way to reduce launch mass would be to load less coolant onboard, but that reduces the useful life of the telescope: an exceptionally difficult compromise to make.

To solve the problem, a radical change was made to the original concept. Rather than operating in low Earth orbit like the Hubble Space Telescope, SIRTF would be launched into deep space. At that distance, the cooling system would no longer have to contend with the heat radiating from the Earth. Naturally the spacecraft would be heated by the sun as well, but that could be mitigated with a passive solar shield. SIRTF would still need to bring along liquid helium to cool the sensors, but in deep space it would require far less.

With these changes to the mission parameters, it was estimated that the SIRTF could keep its instruments cooled to approximately 5 Kelvin ( -268 °C, -450 °F) for up to 5 years.

Spitzer’s Evolving Mission

The SIRTF was launched aboard a Delta II rocket on August 25th, 2003. As was customary at the time, NASA didn’t officially change the spacecraft’s name to the Spitzer Space Telescope until it was ready to begin observations. It was named after Dr. Lyman Spitzer, an early proponent of space telescopes who helped lobby Congress for the funding necessary to build the Hubble before his death in 1997.

From December 2003 to May 2009, Spitzer observed the energy from distant galaxies, young forming stars, and exoplanets at wavelengths between 3.6 μm and 160 μm. After that point the liquid helium ran out, and the temperature of the instrumentation rose to approximately 30 K (−243 °C, −406 °F). This limited the telescope’s observations to a minimum wavelength of 4.5 μm, and marked the beginning what mission controllers referred to as the “Spitzer Warm Mission”.

An image created using data from the “Cold” phase of Spitzer’s mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By the time the so-called warm phase of the mission started, Spitzer was already years beyond its original design lifetime. But the discoveries it made during this period, either on its own or when working in conjunction with other instruments and observatories, were no less impressive. Data from Spitzer helped identify a galaxy that lies an incredible 32 billion light-years from Earth, and techniques such as transit photometry and gravitational microlensing enabled it to perform exoplanet research which had never even been considered in its original mission.

Scientific observations have continued to the present day, though in recent years, declining battery health and the ever-increasing distance between Spitzer and Earth has made downloading the resulting data more difficult.

The Future of Infrared Astronomy

The Spitzer Space Telescope has already outlived the European Space Agency’s similar William Herschel Telescope, and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) isn’t sensitive enough to perform the same sort of observations. Naturally there’s plenty of data to sift through for the time being, but after today, how long will astronomers have to wait before new IR observations can be made?

The James Webb Space Telescope

Spitzer’s direct successor, known as SAFIR (Single Aperture Far InfraRed), is at this point just a concept with no firm timeframe for its construction or launch. The European Space Agency is looking to launch Euclid in 2022, though it will only be able to look as far into the infrared wavelengths as Spitzer. NASA also continues to operate Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified Boeing 747 that flies high enough to avoid the majority of the IR-blocking water vapor in the atmosphere.

But certainly the most exciting prospect on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Slated to be launched next year, the JWST won’t be able to see all of the same IR wavelengths that Spitzer did during its cold phase, but the telescope’s incredibly large 6.5 meter diameter mirror will allow it to observe objects that are dimmer and farther away than ever before.

34 thoughts on “The Spitzer Space Telescope Ends Its Incredible Journey

    1. Apparently the furthest observation was of a about 13.3 billion light years away, with the aid of the gravitational lensing of another system. The universe is only a bit older, so that’s quite a feat.

      1. Yeah, my first thought too, but the universe is expanding. Kind of like jumping off the moving train, lets say you make a nice 5m jump (and survive), how far from where you jumped from are you when you land? 5m? Or 55?

        1. I am aware of the physical universe expanding beyond the 13.8 bly, I seem to recall current size is 90 bly diameter, but I am not sure how anybody can translate time of light traveled to physical distance, given that the expansion rate of the universe is not constant. I have never seen a good explanation for this. To complicate matters even more, 13.2 bly ago when that light we observe was emitted the size of the universe was less than 1 bly with no information as to the actual distance between where the Milky Way would have been then and where GN-z11 was then, so there has been a complex overlay of the expansion rate of the universe, the speed of light of the photons emitted by GN-z11 and the movement of the two galaxies relative to each other. I think the 13.2 bly number makes the most sense as it at least places the galaxy on the time line of the evolution of the universe

  1. Ok, math: say a star is 32billion light years away, 3*10^32um, according to goog [was expecting more!]
    the surface-area of a sphere 32bly is 4pi*r^2, yeah? = 1.13*10^66um^2
    a photon leaves it in some direction, a photon-sensor is say 160um per side = 25.6*10^3um^2…
    So, 4.4*10^60 photons must leave the surface for *one* to hit the sensor?
    The sun allegedly [goog] produces 10^45 photons/sec
    So 4.4*10^15 seconds it would take to capture one photon from our sun if the telescope was at the other end? 140*10^6 *years* to caputre a single photon?
    What’m I doing wrong?
    [Clever idea, the sun shield]

      1. It didn’t travel for 32 billion years. That light went out 13.4 billion years ago. As in, barely anything after the beginning of the Universe (OK, 400M years, but still!). The Universe was expanding during that time, and so the proper distance that the light traveled is 32 billion years.

        Note that even saying “the galaxy is 32 billion light-years away” isn’t even right if you think about it in “conventional” terms – as in, OK, the Sun is 93 million km away so if I travel 100 km/s towards it I’ll get there in about 10 days. If we tried to send a signal *back* to that galaxy, it’d take *way* longer than 32 billion years for it to reach it (in fact, it’d probably *never* be able to reach it, period).

    1. “Ok, math: say a star is 32billion light years away, 3*10^32um, according to goog [was expecting more!]
      the surface-area of a sphere 32bly is 4pi*r^2, yeah? = 1.13*10^66um^2”

      Doesn’t work that way, actually. It’s not like the Milky Way and this galaxy are just sitting in static free space 32 billion light years apart. The distance boost comes from the expansion of the Universe, which doesn’t hurt you the same way that just pure distance does because *everything*’s expanding.

      When the light left that galaxy, the distance between it and the Milky Way (well – the relative location where the Milky Way *would be*) was only ~2.3 billion light years. If you calculate the photon flux using, say, the power at that point and the 2.3 billion ly distance, that’s the same photon flux that’s received *now*. The *power* decreases dramatically because the expansion of the Universe expands the wavelength by a factor of 12, but the photon *count* stays the same.

      It’s probably easier to think about it in terms of surface brightness than the integrated numbers of photons. If the galaxy was *actually* 32 billion light years away, since it’s only around 4000 ly across, you’d expect it to be ridiculously tiny – only 0.02 arcseconds across (as in, think of the triangle: arctan(4E3/32E9)). Except it’s *not* actually 0.02 arcseconds across. It’s more like *3* arcseconds across, because the Universe was much smaller then. It’s just like blowing up a balloon – a circle drawn before you inflate it gets huge when you do inflate it. Likewise here, the galaxy appears much bigger than you would believe based on the distance that the light has ended up travelling.

      So if you work it out it’s probably more like a photon every 10-100 seconds or so.

      1. Wow! Great explanation, thanks.
        Still boggles my mind it’s even possible to detect one photon from a specific source; seems at those rates we’d be just as likely to collect a photon’s tunnelling through our lenses/mirrors/black paint, whathaveyou, from different sources!
        Incredible!

      2. Actually galaxies are not subject to the expansion of the universe, they are primarily influenced by gravity in the local clusters and super clusters and therefore stay more or less together. As the universe expands our local region eventually becomes disconnected from all visible stars and galaxies as the super clusters are moving apart with the expanding universe and ultimately leave our visible portion of the universe and we are totally alone, but don’t panic, we still have a couple of trillion years left

  2. The universe is approx 13 billion years old.

    So if two photons from the big bang left at the start, and in precisely opposite directions, and at the max speed (speed of light), they would now be approx 13 x 2 = 26 light years apart. So within our universe, the max distance between ant two objects is ~26 billion light years.

    So I’m calling 32B light years BS.

      1. Robert’s citation does not mention expansion faster than the speed of light. Science does not currently accept that FTL is possible. At best, the citation introduces confusion between the size of the universe and the size of the visible universe, and poorly accounts for the passage of time.

    1. In your example one photon would be travelling at twice the speed of light in relation to the other. According to our current understanding that’s impossible. That’s the whole point of relativity and where it gets its name from. How can objects be further apart than the age of the universe times the speed of light, you rightfully ask? They didn’t travel faster than light. The universe expanded with them in it, giving them a free ride on top of their own speeds.

    1. Funny thing about the internet these days, different searchers get different results. Some even flat-out lies; then, believe it or not, even scientists have a variety of different belief-systems… I hear string theory still gets research. And dark matter didn’t exist just a few years ago… and not far back the leading researchers thought electrons flowed through wires at near light-speed.
      And even the same resources change daily.

      Then, of course, there are things we don’t even know *to* look up [nevermind *how*], since e.g. common-sense and wisdom once passed down through generations is no longer taught in favor of attitudes like your “RTFM” mentality… I dare you to find out the hard way why bed frames are a good idea. Here’s a hint: I know someone who got evicted for their mattress’s being on the floor. Another who had to pay $3000 in damages, same reason.
      Maybe communicating with folk ain’t such a bad idea… “Life hack!”

  3. “how light can travel through a universe for 32 billion years in a universe that is 20 billion years old”

    Slow Glass? from “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw.

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