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Spitzer Space Telescope

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, initially known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, was the fourth and final of NASA’s Great Observatories. Launched on August 25, 2002, Spitzer was NASA’s primary infrared light observatory, allowing astronomers to study the universe in critical parts of the electromagnetic spectrum of light.

History of the Spitzer Space Telescope

NASA began planning for this addition to their Great Observatories in the 1980s. In 1996, a contractor was selected and construction began on the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF). It was launched on August 25, 2003, and was renamed on December 18th, 2003, after Dr. Lyman Spitzer Jr., a Princeton University professor. 

When Was the Spitzer Space Telescope Built?

The construction of the Spitzer Space Telescope began in 1996. In 1999, the telescope’s primary mirror and instrument package were completed and tested.

Who Built the Spitzer Space Telescope?

The Spitzer Space Telescope was primarily constructed by Lockheed Martin. The infrared detectors were built by the University of Arizona and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

When Was the Spitzer Space Telescope Launched?

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on August 25, 2003, aboard a Delta II rocket, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. 

Where did the Spitzer Space Telescope Orbit?

The Spitzer Space Telescope orbited around the sun roughly 158 million miles (254 million kilometers) from earth, and was the first of the Great Observatories to be positioned outside of earth’s orbit. This unique orbiting pattern provided a wider and clearer view of the cosmos, and it was later used for NASA’s Keplar and James Webb Telescope. 

The Spitzer Space Telescope Mission History

The Spitzer Space Telescope’s 16-year journey was divided into three phases:

  • The cold Mission
  • The warm Mission
  • Spitzer Beyond Mission

Each mission focused on a different operation, bringing new discoveries throughout its history.

The Cold Mission

On December 1, 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope began regular operations, called the “cold mission”. On May 15, 2009, the telescope depleted its coolant, bringing an end to its first mission. 

The Warm Mission

On July 27, 2009, the Spitzer Space Telescope began the “warm mission”. Without coolant to regulate the temperature of the Infrared Spectrograph Instrument and the Multiband Imaging Photometer, Spitzer had to cut back to two of its four wavelengths. With only one remaining instrument, the Infrared Array Camera, Spitzer focused its studies on the expansion of the universe and analysis of celestial bodies.

Spitzer Beyond Mission

On October 1, 2017, Spitzer entered the “Spitzer Beyond Mission”, turning its focus toward early galaxies, exoplanets and the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. On January 30, 2020, Spitzer entered its “Final Voyage” as it was decommissioned.

What Did the Spitzer Space Telescope Discover?

The Spitzer Space Telescope made numerous discoveries, which played an influential role in our understanding of the universe and provided scientists with a deeper look into some of the oldest and most distant objects ever seen. Its most influential discoveries include:

  • The detection of organic molecules in the atmosphere of exoplanets.
  • The observation of a gas giant 13,000 lightyears away.
  • The detection of two newly-formed galaxies.
  • The finding of two supermassive black holes, 13 billion lightyears away.

How Did the Spitzer Space Telescope Impact History?

Spitzer was the largest infrared space telescope to date and brought numerous discoveries throughout its 16-year voyage. With more sensitive infrared sensors than any previous telescope, Spitzer allowed scientists to look through clouds of dust that obscure visible light. This made it possible to study the formation of stars and planets, detect galaxies billions of light-years away, and explore the makeup of comets and asteroids.

When Was the Spitzer Space Telescope Decommissioned?

The Spitzer Space Telescope was officially decommissioned on January 30, 2020, over 10 years past its expected mission duration.