The Spitzer Space Telescope Signs Off

We honor the spacecraft’s 16-year journey with five beautiful images from the telescope.
The Helix nebula, which resembles an evil eye with a blazing red pupil.

The Helix nebula, imaged here in 2007, resembles a giant eye.

Abigail Malate, Staff Illustrator

(Inside Science) -- The telescope that discovered the largest ring of Saturn, detected the first direct evidence of an exoplanet, and imaged remnants of the oldest documented supernova is retiring after 16 years hard at work. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was launched in August 2003 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It detects infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, and such vision allows it to peer through dense dust and gas to see hidden realms of the cosmos.

Spitzer’s capabilities and mission have evolved over the years. In 2009, it ran out of liquid helium to cool its telescope assembly, but continued to operate in a “warm phase,” (which was still pretty cold compared to Earth-based telescopes.) The spacecraft is drifting slowly away from the Earth, making it increasingly difficult to operate. NASA gave the spacecraft its final shut-off commands on Jan. 30.

Here we have compiled five of our favorite images that Spitzer took during its 16-year journey, selected for their aesthetic qualities.

Introduction by: Catherine Meyers, Editor

supernova remnant Cassiopeia A

In June 2005, a mission involving three of NASA’s Great Observatories came together to produce this picture of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. In brilliant hues of pink and purple, studded with golden stars, the image is still a stunner almost 15 years later. The Spitzer Space Telescope provided the infrared data, colored in red. Hubble provided the visible data in yellow, while Chandra’s X-Ray data is represented in green and blue. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/O. Krause (Steward Observatory))

Helix nebula

Two years later, in 2007, Spitzer captured this image of the Helix nebula, a planetary nebula formed from the remnants of a sunlike star gone supernova. Its eerie gaze resembles an evil eye with a blazing red pupil. The infrared light (in blue and green) highlights the nebula’s outer gaseous layers. In the center of the picture are the final layers of gas that emanated from the star’s death (in red). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su (Univ. of Arizona))

vibrant red shown here in the Antennae galaxies

In 2010, the Spitzer Telescope imaged the vibrant red shown here in the Antennae galaxies, located 62 million light-years from Earth. This composite also features data from Chandra in blue and the Hubble Space Telescope in brown and gold. (NASA/CXC/SAO/JPL-Caltech/STScI)

North America nebula

This is the North America nebula, imaged in two different wavelengths. If you imagine that the blue (visible light) on the left is land, while the red (infrared light) on the right is water, you can start to see a resemblance to the curve of North America’s east coast with the Gulf of Mexico in the nebula. Dotting the whole portrait are clusters of young stars. The Digitized Sky Survey provided the visible light data in this composite. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Rebull (SSC/Caltech)/D. De Martin)

the shock wave, coursing in front of the star Zeta Ophiuchi in the center

The most stunning element in this picture is the bow shock, or the shock wave, coursing in front of the star Zeta Ophiuchi in the center. This wave would be invisible if not for the Spitzer Telescope, as it is only detectable in infrared light. This brilliant cascade of dust is formed by winds that flow from the star, located about 370 light-years from Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Abigail Malate is a graphic designer at the American Institute of Physics, which produces the editorially independent news service Inside Science.