The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) named its Spitzer Space Telescope after visionary scientist Lyman Spitzer Jr., (1914-1997), one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Spitzer, who was an astrophysicist at Princeton University for long, had lobbied for a large space telescope as early as 1946 – the work culminating in the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. After Spitzer died in 1997, NASA continued to develop the Great Observatories Program, a group of 4 space-based telescopes – each observing the universe in a different kind of light.
Apart from Hubble Space Telescope, the other telescopes are Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO) and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (CXO). The final telescope, launched in 2003, comprised, according to NASA, “a large telescope and three cryogenically cooled instruments capable of studying the universe at near-to-far infrared wavelengths.” It is very interesting to note that, despite the amazing power of the images that it captures, the Spitzer telescope itself is small – standing just 13 feet tall weighing 1,906 pounds.
The Spitzer telescope has been designed to detect infrared radiation, which is primarily heat radiation. Here is one of the spectacular pictures taken by the Spitzer telescope of the Corona Australis region, which is considered as one of the nearest and most active regions of ongoing star formation. The picture shows the Coronet in X-rays from Chandra (purple) and infrared from Spitzer (orange, green, and cyan).
The Sombrero Galaxy – named so because of its resemblance to the Mexican hat – is 28 million light-years away from Earth. A black hole, believed to exist at the centre of the galaxy, is 1 billion times larger than our Sun. Spitzer’s highly sensitive instruments can see objects, which optical telescopes cannot, such as exoplanets, failed stars and giant molecule clouds.
Nebula in Carina
Spitzer’s photograph of the Carina Nebula. This nebula contains a star, which is 100 times as massive and a million times as bright as our Sun.
Infant stars in Orion Nebula
Here, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope combine to show the chaos of baby stars, located about 1,500 light-years away, in the Orion Nebula. The orange dots are infant stars. The less embedded stars are shown as specks of green, and the foreground stars are shown as blue spots.
In this infrared image from Spitzer is shown Messier 63 – also called the Sunflower Galaxy. The picture shows complex structures that trace Sunflower Galaxy’s spiral arm pattern. Messier 63, known to be 37 million light-years away, is also 100,000 light-years across – which is about the size of our own Milky Way.
Central star cluster in Milky Way
The bright, central star cluster of our Milky Way galaxy. Spitzer’s infrared abilities enable us to view the group of stars like never before. NASA says the region shown here is immense, with a horizontal span of 2,400 light-years (5.3 degrees) and a vertical span of 1,360 light-years (3 degrees).
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
This greenish mist consists of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which, according to NASA, are found on Earth in sooty vehicle exhaust and on charred grills. Spitzer lets the human eye see PAHs glow thanks to infrared light.
Family tree of stars
Spitzer provides a glimpse of ‘cosmic generations’ via images of W5, the star-forming region. While the oldest stars are seen as blue dots in the centres of the two hollow cavities (other blue dots are background and foreground stars not associated with the region), younger stars line the rims of the two cavities. The white, knotty areas are where the youngest stars are forming.
The Cartwheel Galaxy, found in the constellation Sculptor in the Southern Hemisphere below Pisces and Cetus, is the result of a 200-million-year-old collision between two galaxies. This picture was taken using several instruments such as the Galaxy Evolution Explorer’s Far Ultraviolet detector (blue), the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera-2 in B-band visible light (green), the Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (red), and the Chandra X-ray Observatory’s Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer-S array instrument (purple).
This is a composite picture of the Large Magellanic Cloud, taken by Spitzer and the Chandra X-ray. According to NASA, finally, the $670-million Spitzer telescope has given us a glimpse of the building blocks of life.