SPITZER’S 16 YEARS OF SCANNING THE COSMOS

By Lily Katzman/Smithsonianmag.com

Robert Hurt, a visualization scientist working for the Spitzer Space Center, is taking the decommission of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope a bit more personally than most.

“Aside from being on the precipice of an emotional breakdown after the loss of something that’s as dear to me as a family member, I’m doing well,” he says.

Even those of us who haven’t spent our careers creating images of the universe from Spitzer data can appreciate the loss. On January 30, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope concluded 16 years of infrared observations that allowed scientists to reveal some of the most hidden regions of our universe. With a primary mission of only two-and-a-half years, Spitzer’s small size and efficiency propelled the telescope to exceed scientists’ expectations, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets, the composition of planetary systems, and even the earliest star formations.

But now, as Spitzer’s batteries reach the end of their lives, the telescope is experiencing communication barriers and cooling difficulties. The Spitzer team at NASA and the California Institute of Technology has no choice but to bid the spacecraft farewell.

“Spitzer has fundamentally changed astronomy textbooks,” says Sean Carey, manager of Spitzer’s Science Center at Caltech. “It’s told us so much about the universe in so many different aspects.”

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