June 4, 2019
Ryan Whitwam

NASA Releases Stunning Images From Doomed Spitzer Telescope

When you think of space telescopes, Hubble is probably the first thing that comes to mind, but NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope deserves some attention, too. This instrument launched in 2003 with an expected life span of 2.5 years, and it’s still operating to this day. NASA is preparing to wrap up Spitzer’s mission, but the agency isn’t done showing off what the spacecraft can do. NASA has just released images of a dense stellar cluster captured by the aging telescope.

Spitzer is an infrared telescope, so it can see features in distant objects that are not visible in the spectrum seen by human eyes. The telescope carries three instruments to make that happen: the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), Infrared Spectrograph (IRS), and Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer (MIPS). In order to reduce interference from ambient heat, Spitzer used liquid helium to cool its infrared instruments. Spitzer ran out of coolant in 2009, which was already considerably past than its original mission. At that point, it could no longer use the MIPS and IRAC to scan into the high-infrared wavelengths.

The newly released photos depict the Cepheus C and Cepheus B regions. There are two images of these regions because they come from the two eras of the Spitzer Space Telescope. The above image with green hues combines data from Spitzer’s IRAC and MIPS instruments before coolant ran dry in 2009. After that, the MIPS no longer worked — IRAC is the only instrument on Spitzer that still functions as intended because it doesn’t need coolant. The image below in red comes only from IRAC.

Cepheus C and Cepheus B regions via IRAC only.

The wider range of wavelengths in the “mosaic” from older data shows more detail, but both are still more intricate than you’d get from an instrument like Hubble that cannot look deeply into the infrared. Toward the left side of the images, you can see Cepheus C, consisting of many young stars. Many of them are obscured by dust in the IRAC-only image, but the mosaic shows more. The young nebula to the right shows greater detail in the mosaic as well. Above that is the Cepheus B cluster. These stars are a bit older than Cepheus C. The nebula is also home to some other fascinating objects like a runaway star that’s cutting through dust and gas (middle right), and V374 Ceph is a large, older star with a thick disk of dust visible edge-on in the images.

NASA plans to retire the Spitzer Space Telescope in January 2020, which is too bad. Even with just one instrument operating, it still has some value. However, the agency was unable to find a private organization to take over the telescope.

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