NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope — whose infrared radiation detection capabilities have discovered exoplanets nearly 40 light years away and given scientists a rare look at the early formation of the universe — will power down in January after 16 years of groundbreaking science.
On Sunday at 5 p.m. two of the research scientists who worked to help develop and define the mission of the infrared telescope over decades will speak at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House and sign copies of their newly published book, “More Things in the Heavens: How Astronomy is Expanding our View of the Universe.”
Michael Werner and Peter Eisenhardt will explain how much of the cosmos remained invisible to the human eye until Spitzer’s infrared vision began to illuminate ultra-cool objects in faraway galaxies.
“Spitzer can see the radiation from objects which are too cold to produce any visible light,” Werner said, explaining how light waves from long past events can be detected. “The infrared spectrum is a good place to look for very distant objects, objects we’d see when the universe was 5% of its current size and age.”
Werner began his work on the Spitzer mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1977 when the thought was that the telescope would be affixed to a space shuttle that would make return trips to Earth. But as technology improved it became apparent the scope could be a much nimbler free-flying observatory that could follow Earth as it orbited the sun.
In 1990 the mission was moved to La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Eisenhardt’s own work on infrared observation of distant galaxies brought him to Spitzer in 1987 and later to JPL when the mission relocated.
An astonishing discovery came in 2017, when the telescope was able to detect the presence of exoplanets clustered around an ultra-cool red dwarf star, now called TRAPPIST-1.
“We found there were not just one or two planets but seven planets,” he said, adding that the planets’ location implies the possibility of the existence of liquid water.
Published in June by Princeton University Press, “More Things in the Heavens” includes some 90 full-color reproductions of what the two scientists describe as some of the most spectacular images Spitzer has taken.
On Jan. 30 the Spitzer Space Telescope will be switched off permanently after operating more than 11 years longer than its primary mission and nearly 50 years of planning and development, to allow for new missions.
Eisenhardt said he believes the mission will be remembered for revealing the history of the formation of stars throughout the universe and for showing the ways scientists can identify earthlike planets around distant stars.
Werner said the Spitzer Mission is an example of the very best people being allowed to do their best work.
“It’s been a privilege to have been intimately involved with this great project virtually since its inception,” he said. “It has far exceeded anything we were talking about in the early days, both in the duration of mission and quality of data.”
FYI: Michael Werner and Peter Eisenhardt will discuss and sign copies of “More Things in the Heavens: How Infrared Astronomy is Expanding Our View of the Universe” Sunday at 5 p.m. at Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 1010 Foothill Blvd. in La Cañada. For more visit flintridgebooks.com or call (818) 790-0717.
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