12 Spectacular Images From NASA's Spitzer Telescope

Photograph of a nebula as seen in space
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA calls Lyman Spitzer Jr. (1914-1997) one of the 20th century's greatest scientists. The longtime Princeton astrophysicist lobbied for a large space telescope as early as 1946, work that culminated in the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. After Spitzer's death in 1997, NASA continued to develop the Great Observatories Program, a group of four space-based telescopes each observing the universe in a different kind of light.

Besides Hubble, the other telescopes include Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO) and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (CXO). The final telescope was launched in 2003, consisting of "a large telescope and three cryogenically cooled instruments capable of studying the universe at near-to-far infrared wavelengths." NASA named this new space-flyer the Spitzer Space Telescope in honor of the visionary scientist. As this revolutionary telescope now approaches retirement — scheduled for Jan. 30, 2020 — here's a look at some of the incredible views it has given us over the years, including this image of the Cat's Paw Nebula, a star-forming region inside the Milky Way.

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An infrared view of M81

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Soon after Spitzer was launched in August 2003, one of its first publicly released datasets featured the M81 galaxy, which is located relatively nearby at about 12 million light-years from Earth. For the telescope's 16th anniversary in 2019, NASA released this new image of the iconic galaxy with extended observations and improved processing.

The image's near-infrared data (blue) trace the distribution of stars, NASA explains. The galaxy's spiral arms become its main feature at longer wavelengths, as seen in the 8-micron data (green) dominated by infrared light from hot dust that has been heated by nearby luminous stars. The image's 24-micron data (red) show emission from warm dust heated by the most luminous young stars. The scattering of red spots along the galaxy's spiral arms show where the dust is heated to high temperatures near massive stars that are being born, according to NASA.

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Coronet cluster in X-ray and infrared

Photo: NASA/CXC/J. Forbrich (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), NASA/JPL-Caltech L.Allen (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA) and the IRAC GTO Team

The Spitzer telescope is designed to detect infrared radiation, which is primarily heat radiation, according to NASA. The telescope has two major compartments: the Cryogenic Telescope Assembly, which is home to the 85-centimeter telescope and three space instruments; and the spacecraft that controls the telescope, powers the instruments, and processes the scientific data for Earth. The result is magnificent pictures, such as this one showing the Coronet cluster at the heart of the Corona Australis region, considered "one of the nearest and most active regions of ongoing star formation ... [showing] the Coronet in X-rays from Chandra (purple) and infrared from Spitzer (orange, green, and cyan)." Because this area consists of a loose cluster of a few dozen young stars with a wide range of masses, it's a perfect place for astronomers to learn more about the evolution of young stars.

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Spectacular sombrero

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Because Spitzer's instruments are so sensitive, it can see objects that optical telescopes cannot, such as exoplanets, failed stars and giant molecule clouds. "Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes joined forces to create this striking composite image of one of the most popular sights in the universe," says NASA. The Sombrero Galaxy, named after its resemblance to the Mexican hat, is 28 million light-years away from Earth. At the center of this galaxy, a black hole is believed to exist that's 1 billion times larger than our sun.

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New view of the great nebula in Carina

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich, Penn State Univ.

The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched in 2003. NASA hoped the mission could extend beyond five years, but in May 2009, the onboard supply of helium ran out. As a result, without helium to cool its instruments, the space telescope transitioned into its "warm" mission. Here Spitzer reveals the Carina Nebula, which contains Eta Carinae, a star that's 100 times as massive and a million times as bright as our sun.

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Chaos at the heart of Orion

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

When Spitzer was fully functional, it had to be simultaneously warm and cool to function. "Everything in the Cryogenic Telescope Assembly must be cooled only a few degrees above absolute zero," according to NASA. "This is achieved with an onboard tank of liquid helium or cryogen. Meanwhile, electronic equipment in the Spacecraft portion needs to operate at room temperature." The Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes work together in this image, which shows the chaos of baby stars some 1,500 light-years away in the Orion nebula. The orange dots are infant stars. Hubble shows less embedded stars as specks of green, and foreground stars as blue spots.

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Spitzer's Sunflower

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SINGS Team

Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, is shown in all its infrared glory. As NASA explains, "Infrared light is sensitive to the dust lanes in spiral galaxies, which appear dark in visible-light images. Spitzer's view reveals complex structures that trace the galaxy's spiral arm pattern." Messier 63 is about 37 million light-years away. It's also 100,000 light-years across, which is about the size of our own Milky Way.

Despite the amazing power of the images it captures, the Spitzer Space Telescope itself is rather small. It stands 13 feet (4 meters) tall and weighs about 1,906 pounds (865 kilograms).

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Stars gather in downtown Milky Way

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spitzer operates in a heliocentric, Earth-trailing orbit. (As experts point out, this system helped prolong the longevity of the coolant because cryogen is used to take up the power dissipated by the detector arrays, rather than lost to heat loads.) Pictured here is the bright central star cluster of our Milky Way galaxy. Because of Spitzer's infrared abilities, we are able to view the group of stars as never before. This area is gigantic. According to NASA, "The region pictured 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)."

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Bright light, green city

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS/B. Whitney (SSI/University of Wisconsin)

This greenish mist gets its color through Spitzer's color-coding abilities. The fog is comprised of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which NASA says are "found right here on Earth in sooty vehicle exhaust and on charred grills." Spitzer allows the human eye to see PAHs glow via infrared light. This image was compiled after Spitzer's helium ran out, marking the beginning of its "warm" mission. You can follow Spitzer’s path here.

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Spitzer reveals stellar family tree

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Allen & X. Koenig (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

Ever wonder what a family tree of stars might look like? Spitzer gives us a glimpse of cosmic generations through images of W5, the star-forming region. According to NASA, "the oldest stars can be seen as blue dots in the centers 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 cavities, and some can be seen as dots at the tips of the elephant-trunk-like pillars. The white knotty areas are where the youngest stars are forming."

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Cartwheel galaxy makes waves

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/P. N. Appleton (SSC/Caltech)

The Cartwheel galaxy, which is found in the constellation Sculptor in the Southern Hemisphere below Pisces and Cetus, resulted from a 200-million-year-old collision between two galaxies. This image is the result of NASA's many instruments: 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).

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Spitzer's legacy

Photo: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Caltech/S.Kulkarni et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI/UIUC/Y.H.Chu & R.Williams et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R.Gehrz et al.

Pictured here is a composite image of the Large Magellanic Cloud as seen by Spitzer and the Chandra X-ray. Ultimately, the $670 million Spitzer telescope has given us a glimpse of the building blocks of life.

John Bahcall — who chaired a panel at the Institute for Advanced Study — told CBS News at Spitzer’s launch in 2003, "With the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope, we can see things that human beings couldn't see before. We can watch stars being born, we can see planets form, we can observe galaxies shrouded in dust, we can look to the edge of the visible universe."

Through the ingenuity of the creators of the Spitzer Space Telescope, we have done just that.

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