Spitzer Space Telescope is Repurposed 13 Years After Launch

Final stages of telescope’s life brings new discoveries and new engineering challenges.

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

Thirteen years after its launch, the Spitzer Space telescope will enter the final phase of its life. As the infrared telescope drifts further from Earth, its mission will address a wider array of scientific quandaries covering the fields of astronomy, cosmology and exoplanet discovery. Meanwhile, NASA engineers will face a new set of challenges.

“Spitzer is operating well beyond the limits that were set for it at the beginning of the mission,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We never envisioned operating 13 years after launch, and scientists are making discoveries in areas of science we never imagined exploring with the spacecraft.”

The latest phase of Spitzer’s journey has aptly been named “Beyond”, though the Spitzer telescope has been working “beyond” it capabilities for a while. Back in 2008 most of the telescope’s instruments were rendered useless thanks to the planned loss of on board liquid helium coolant.

Still, even without its most important instruments Spitzer’s designers had plans to shift the satellite from “cold missions” to “warm missions” once the coolant was kaput. Since that time, Spitzer has continued to contribute valuable data to scientists including how forsterite crystals behave and the discovery of one of the most distant planets ever discovered, a gas giant some 13,000 light years away.

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

Though Spitzer’s legacy is already impressive, its final few years of life will continue to add to that legacy. According to NASA, because of Spitzer’s age and orbit, engineers will have to solve a series of interwoven problems if they’re to squeeze every bit of science out of the space ‘scope.

Spitzer is getting farther and farther from Earth with every passing second. As the distance between the Blue Dot and the telescope continues to widen, Spitzer will be forced to point its antenna at an ever higher angle in reference to the Sun in order to send data back to NASA. Put simply, that means the craft will experience even greater heat. 

Ironically, as the craft turns its antenna, the movement will cause more shadow to be cast across Spitzer’s solar panels, straining the craft’s age-old batteries and forcing its engineers to override automatic “safe-modes” built to stop the craft from self-destruction.

“Balancing these concerns on a heat-sensitive spacecraft will be a delicate dance, but engineers are hard at work preparing for the new challenges in the Beyond phase,” said Mark Effertz, the Spitzer spacecraft chief engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.

If all goes according to plan the Spitzer space telescope will fall to the ages just as the James Webb space telescope makes ready to launch.

For more telescopic news, find out how Lowell is restoring the Pluto discovery telescope