Goodbye Spitzer Space Telescope Was it Worth It Whats Going to Happen To It

NASA will shut down one of its most prolific space telescopes this week. The Spitzer Space Telescope will be decommissioned on Jan 30, 2020

2220 Views | Published on 29th Jan, 2020

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What will happen to Spitzer?

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. In this episode, NASA will shut down one of its most prolific space telescopes this week. The Spitzer Space Telescope will be decommissioned after 16 years of observing the cosmos. Why is NASA shutting it down and what’s going to happen to it after it does? Stick around.

If you stop to think about it, NASA has an amazing track record building, launching, and operating space telescopes. Many of them are used well past their nominal mission lengths. For example, Hubble was expected to operate for five years and this year marks it’s thirtieth year taking observations, the Solar Heliospheric Observatory was launched five years after hubble and is also still up there taking observations of the Sun on the 8,825th day of its mission.

Other observatories still operating past their nominal mission lengths include the Chandra X-ray telescope, the WISE and Neo-WISE space telescopes and others.

The point is, NASA’s gotten pretty good at keeping these telescopes going for a long time and so it is always sad to see one of them go. This week, NASA’s turning off Spitzer, a telescope that long ago ran out of coolant that allowed it to take deep infrared images of the universe but was operated in different modes that allowed images to be taken at slightly different wavelengths in the IR that allowed the science mission to continue.

Spitzer was launched in 2003 with the aim of taking images of the cold, old and dusty universe in wavelengths we can’t see here on the ground. The key advantage of this is that Spitzer can see things too cold to emit much visible light, like gas, dust, protoplanetary disks, brown dwarfs and, it turns out, exoplanets.

Spitzer was launched right before the science of exoplanets took off, but it became a valuable contributor to exoplanet studies nonetheless.

When combined with images from Hubble, Spitzer data really shines (forgive the pun).

Also, the Spitzer Space Telescope studied THE most distant galaxy ever observed. The light from this galaxy left 13.4 billion years ago to end its amazing journey on the detector of Spitzer’s cameras.

Spitzer made the first weather map of an exoplanet, found hidden areas of star formation, detected a collection of very distant galaxies 12 billion light years away, found the largest known ring around Saturn, was the first telescope to directly identify molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets, identified two of the most distant supermassive black holes ever seen, helped detect one of the most remote planets ever discovered about 13,000 light-years away, was the first to directly observe light from an exoplanet, and observed the TRAPPIST-1 system for over 500 hours to determine just how many planets were in orbit around that star.

We got all of that and more from a total mission cost - including launch, operations, everything - of $1.6 billion dollars. Total. Given what Spitzer has taught us, that’s a real bargain.

So it’s not overstating things to say this telescope will be sorely missed. Especially since there won’t be any observations in this wavelength range until JWST launches sometime next year.

For a little over a year, assuming JWST has no more delays and no catastrophes, and I just found out today there might be - stay tuned on that - there will be a gap between what Hubble can observe and what Spitzer was looking at - there’s no other game in town and the infrared is vitally important if you want to learn about exoplanets and the distant universe.

So here we are, after 16 years, it’s getting harder and harder to point Spitzer where NASA wants to point it, places like the Sun to get the solar panels to charge the spacecraft, and the Earth to transmit data to, and the universe in general for things to look at.

On January 30th, NASA will put the spacecraft into safe mode which is the lowest possible state of power needed to keep the spacecraft operational and then put into a Sun cone attitude forever. Once done, there will be no possibility of resurrecting it again.

After that, the ground system for operating the mission will be decommissioned and that will be it for the Spitzer Space Telescope.

But this brings up an interesting point. After NASA launches, operates and then turns off these amazing Space telescopes, what happens to them?

I mean, even though NASA is a rock-star when it comes to space telescopes, it’s starting to accumulate a lot of decommissioned ones up there and some of them can stay up there for quite a while. Kepler for instance was turned off in 2018 and is still up there following the Earth around the Sun, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer was turned off in 2012 and will circle the Earth for 60 more years before burning up in the atmosphere.

Copernicus, one of NASA’s first space telescopes was turned off in 1981 is still up there in Earth orbit. And all of this stuff is starting to add up.

In the case of Spitzer it’s kind of funny how that’s gonna work out, it’s in an orbit that follows the Earth around the Sun and is slowly falling behind with each orbit around the Sun. And in 2051 the Earth will have lapped Spitzer and push it into an orbit closer to the Sun, where it will travel a little faster and pass Earth by and then we will follow it for a while.

This brings up an interesting idea: many people watching SFN are dreading the day when the Hubble Space Telescope is decommissioned. This telescope has left an indelible mark on our imaginations and does so much to help us understand our place in the cosmos. Sadly, Hubble will eventually burn up in our atmosphere, but these other space telescopes won’t. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get up there and make a little space park out of them where future space travellers can go visit them like we do memorials and parks here on Earth?

Wouldn’t it also be great if we could somehow push Hubble into an orbit that doesn’t decay and do the same thing? Put a plaque on it and maybe a little gift shop and cafe where you can buy a t-shirt and get a cup of coffee?

But whatever happens there will always be some relics of astronomical discovery always up there, dim reminders of technological windows that helped sculpt our vision of our place in the Cosmos.

I want to thank all Patreon Patrons for supporting Deep Astronomy, you guys are amazing. Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!