Spitzer Space Telescope (SST)
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (SST)
Keeping spacecraft operating in the cold reaches of space is a big challenge. Instruments freeze up, parts stop working, and spacecraft eventually die. The Mars Phoenix spacecraft only lasted a few months at the Red Planet's north pole before it succumbed to the extreme cold of the oncoming winter.
So, why in the world would NASA deliberately launch a spacecraft whose instruments were chilled down to -456 degrees Fahrenheit using liquid helium? Was the space agency trying to fail?
No. The Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) was cooled to just 3.67 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero because it had to measure the heat of infrared light emitted by extremely cold objects it observes.
Launched on Aug. 25, 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope was the last – but certainly not the least – of NASA's four Great Observatories. The telescope is named after the late Lyman Spitzer, a Princeton University astrophysics professor who proposed sending a large telescope into space in 1946. Spitzer was instrumental in getting the first Great Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, built and launched into space.
The $800 million Spitzer Space Telescope orbits the sun more than 62 million miles behind Earth. SST is thousands of times more sensitive than Earth-based observatories, giving scientists unprecedented views of stars, galaxies, and other cosmic phenomena.
In 2004, the Spitzer Space Telescope was viewing a core of gas and dust when it spotted the faint red glow of what is likely the youngest star ever seen. The red area had previously appeared to be completely dark based on observations taken by ground-based telescopes and Spitzer's predecessor, the Infrared Space Observatory.
The following year, SST became the first telescope to directly capture the light of exo-planets, specifically HD 209458b and TrES-1. Although it was unable to resolve the light into images, this marked the first time that a planet outside of our Solar System had been directly observed. Earlier worlds had been identified by the pull they exerted on the stars they orbited.
In 2006, SST found an 80-light-year-long nebula near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy that astronomers named the Double Helix Nebula due to its double spiral appearance. Scientists believe the nebula is a result of massive magnetic fields being generated by a gas disc that is orbiting a super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Spitzer's on-board supply of super-cold liquid helium ran out on May 15, 2009. At that point, the telescope warned up slightly from -456 degrees Fahrenheit to -404 degrees Fahrenheit. The observatory then began its warm mission, which involved measuring wavelengths that are not affect by the loss of coolant.
NASA is building the James Webb Space Telescope as a successor to the Spitzer and Hubble observatories. The Webb telescope is scheduled for launch in 2018.
Spitzer Space Telescope website
Lyman Spitzer biography