For 16 years, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has trailed Earth’s orbit, sending back remarkable data about distant galaxies and alien worlds. Sadly, the time has come for the telescope to hang up its infrared instruments. On Thursday, NASA’s ground control will signal to the telescope to shut it down— and its end will be as silent and lonesome as its travels.
As metal as NASA's Cassini probe's death proved when it crashed and burned on the surface of Saturn, so will Spitzer's end be decidedly more emo. There will be no fire ball, no final battle with the planet's atmosphere. Instead, Spitzer will become a cosmic ghost ship, sailing a course into nothingness.
Its end befits its life: The telescope has cut its own path in the cosmos for years. Spitzer launched on August 25, 2003, as part of NASA’s Great Observatories program. The telescope peered through the cosmos using infrared light, allowing it to see into areas of the universe that were otherwise shrouded in interstellar dust, like young planetary bodies.
Originally, it trailed slightly behind the Earth, just far enough to stay clear of the infrared light emanating from our planet. But six years in, the telescope ran out of the helium liquid designed to keep it cool. And yet, it kept on going, making observations in two infrared wavelengths.
The telescope is still operational today. But Spitzer's lonely nature means NASA is being forced to kill it off: Over time, it has gotten further and further away from Earth. It will eventually power down and, unless it hits something by accident, its solitary journey may never end.
It's now around 270 million kilometers from our planet, which has made it difficult to communicate with Spitzer from ground control.
This is what will happen when NASA pulls the trigger and signals for Spitzer to end:
- Once NASA engineers instruct Spitzer to shut down, a safe mode will be triggered that will turn off the scientific systems on the telescope, Joseph Hunt, Spitzer’s mission manager, said during NASA’s tribute to the space telescope.
- Spitzer will keep trailing Earth along the same path as our orbit until it finally passes the planet by in 53 years.
- When it passes Earth, it will continue on and out into the emptiness of space alone.
Spitzer telescope: Best images
Originally designed to last through a two and a half year mission, Spitzer far exceeded its timeline and, over its tenure, has provided us with some of the most breathtaking images of the cosmos ever taken.
"Spitzer taught us how important infrared light is to understanding our universe, both in our own cosmic neighborhood and as far away as the most distant galaxies," Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. "The advances we make across many areas in astrophysics in the future will be because of Spitzer's extraordinary legacy."
Spitzer's images show off the magic of the universe in stunning detail, revealing bursting stellar nurseries, nebulas left over from dying stars and some of the most distant galaxies ever observed.
Here are some of our favorites.
1. Helix Nebula
This infrared image, taken in 2017 by Spitzer, shows the Helix nebula enshrouded in dust.
The nebula, which is 700 light years away from Earth, is a planetary nebula — the remains of stars similar to our Sun that have perished in a supernova.
Curiously, the dust (red cloud) is thought to have been kicked up by comets — making the Helix nebula one of the few nebulae of its kind that contains comets.
2. Cat's Paw Nebula
In 2018, Spitzer captured this stunning image of the Cat's Paw Nebula, framed by clouds of interstellar dust.
The nebula is thought to be between 4,200 and 5,500 light years from Earth. It sits in a star-forming region of our Milky Way galaxy. The green filaments are actually created by the collision of large hydrocarbon molecules with radiation emitted by hot stars in the nebula's clouds.
3. Eta Carinae
This image shows Spitzer's view of Eta Carinae, a giant star that is 100 times the mass of the Sun.
Taken in 2013, the image details Eta Carinae in all of its turbulent glory. The star is a true bright spark in the universe: Not only is it significantly larger than our Sun, it also burns through its fuel at a million times the rate, meaning it burns far brighter.
4. Saturn's dust
In 2009, Spitzer discovered a large ring of dust around Saturn — the largest known around the giant planet.
Despite being previously invisible to us here on Earth, the ring engulfs the planet — its height is 20 times that of the planet's.
5. Trappist-1's planetary system
During its time in space, Spitzer also joined in the hunt for exoplanets. It was the first telescope to directly detect light from planets orbiting around stars outside of our Solar System — including that from a seven-planet system known as TRAPPIST-1.
The discovery marked the largest batch of Earth-sized planets ever found in a single system, and three of them are within their star’s habitable zone.
Long live the James Webb Telescope
Spitzer’s successor is already in the making. The James Webb Telescope is scheduled to launch on March 30, 2021.
The telescope is designed to look through distant galaxies located in the early universe at the formation of planetary systems using infrared light, much like its predecessor did.
The James Webb Telescope will also conduct follow-up observations of the TRAPPIST-1 system to study the planets’ atmospheres and to find out just how habitable they may be.