NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has taken its first shots of the cosmos since warming up and starting its second career. The infrared telescope ran out of coolant on May 15, 2009, more than five-and-half-years after launch, and has since warmed to a still-frosty 30 Kelvin (about minus 406 Fahrenheit).
New images taken with two of Spitzer's infrared detector channels -- the two that work at the new warmer temperature -- demonstrate that the observatory remains a powerful tool for probing the dusty universe. The images show a bustling star-forming region, the pretty remains of a star like the sun, and a swirling galaxy lined with stars.
"Spitzer continues to provide us with a unique view of stars, galaxies and planets," said Spitzer Project Scientist Michael Werner, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
"We're thrilled to see Spitzer up and running again, and continuing to provide such spectacular images," added astronomer Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "This new lease on life is a testament to a well-designed spacecraft."
The first of three images shows a cloud bursting with stars in the Cygnus region of our Milky Way galaxy. Spitzer's infrared eyes both peer through and see dust, revealing young stars tucked in dusty nests. A second image shows a nearby dying star -- a planetary nebula called NGC 4361 -- whose outer layers expand outward in the rare form of four jets. And a final picture is of a classic spiral beauty, a galaxy called NGC 4145 located 68 million light-years from Earth.
"With Spitzer's remaining shorter-wavelength bands, we can continue to see through the dust in galaxies and get a better look at the overall populations of stars," said Robert Hurt imaging specialist for Spitzer at NASA's Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology. "All stars are equal in the infrared."
Since its launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on August 25, 2003, Spitzer has made countless discoveries: planet-forming disks around stars, the composition of the material making up comets, hidden black holes, galaxies billions of light-years away and more.
Perhaps the most revolutionary and surprising Spitzer finds involve planets around other stars, called exoplanets. In 2005, Spitzer detected the first actual photons of light from an exoplanet. In a clever technique, now referred to as the secondary-eclipse method, Spitzer was able to collect the light of a hot, gaseous exoplanet and learn about its temperature. Further detailed studies later revealed more about the composition and structure of the atmospheres of these exotic worlds.
Warm Spitzer will address many of the same science questions as before, while tackling new projects, such as: refining estimates of Hubble's constant, or the rate at which our universe is stretching apart; searching for galaxies at the edge of the universe; characterizing more than 700 near-Earth objects, or asteroids and comets with orbits that pass close to our planet; and studying the atmospheres of gas-giant planets expected to be discovered soon by NASA's Kepler mission. As was true during the cold Spitzer mission, these and the other programs are selected via a competition in which scientists from around the world are invited to participate.
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