Skip to main content

Spitzer telescope lasted longer than expected, but its mission isn't done yet

If NASA scientists were more accurate, Spitzer would’ve died years ago. More than a decade after its launch, the infrared space telescope still captures and transmits beautiful data about the cosmos.

But good things must come to an end and Spitzer’s deep space gaze is no different. Last week, on the anniversary of the telescope’s launch, NASA announced Spitzer would be entering its final, two-and-a-half-year phase in October. Dubbed “Beyond,” Spitzer’s last mission will keep the telescope’s sensors pointed into outer space until after the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018.

Related Videos
Spitzer Beyond

Over the years, Spitzer has exceeded expectations and delivered awe-inspiring images and information — from a 360-degree infrared panorama of the Milky Way to the discovery of a massive ring around Saturn, hundreds of times larger than the one seen in visible light.

“Spitzer is operating well beyond the limits that were set for it at the beginning of the mission,” Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release. “We never envisioned operating 13 years after launch, and scientists are making discoveries in areas of science we never imagined exploring with the spacecraft.”

As with most aging machines, Spitzer will face a number of challenges in the last leg of its mission. For one, the telescope’s slow orbit behind the Earth means the distance between the Spitzer and the planet is constantly growing. In order to compensate for this and ensure that signals are still received, scientists have to alter some of the mechanics — such as the autonomous safety systems — that have kept Spitzer functioning for so long.

“Balancing these concerns on a heat-sensitive spacecraft will be a delicate dance, but engineers are hard at work preparing for the new challenges in the Beyond phase,” said Mark Effertz, Spitzer chief engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, which built the spacecraft.

This wouldn’t be the first time Spitzer faced such significant challenges: In 2009, when the spacecraft ran out of coolant needed for some of it’s cameras, the mission had to be practically reinvented, switching from “cold” to “hot” operations. But, if there’s one thing the Spitzer mission has demonstrated over the past decade, it’s just how resilient and dynamic the space telescope can be.

Editors' Recommendations

James Webb Space Telescope stamp release date revealed
The James Webb Space Telescope Forever stamp.

The excitement surrounding the James Webb Space Telescope ramped up a notch earlier this month when NASA shared the first incredible images from the next-generation observatory.

Now the United States Postal Service (USPS) is getting in on the action with the imminent launch of a specially designed stamp to celebrate what is the most powerful space telescope ever built.

Read more
Here’s what the James Webb Space Telescope will set its sights on next
This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.

The world came together last week in a rare show of international unity to stare in wonder at the first scientific images produced by the James Webb Space Telescope. Decades in the making and the result of the efforts of thousands of people from around the globe, the telescope is set to revolutionize astronomy by allowing us to peer deeper into the cosmos than ever before.

Webb has the largest mirror ever launched into space, as well as the largest sunshield, and it is the most powerful space telescope ever built. The first images are just a taste of what this remarkable piece of technology is capable of doing. So to find out more about what future scientific research will be enabled by this behemoth, we spoke to Mark McCaughrean, Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist at the European Space Agency.

Read more
How to watch the release of the first James Webb Space Telescope images
The James Webb Space Telescope.

This week will see a huge event in the world of astronomy, with the release of the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Launched in December last year, the telescope had to travel to its orbit around the sun, deploy its hardware including a 6.5-meter primary mirror and a tennis court-sized sunshield, then align and calibrate its four instruments. With all that done, scientists are itching to start work with the telescope, and the first results will be shared on Tuesday, July 12.

First Images of the James Webb Space Telescope (Official NASA Broadcast)

Read more