- NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shot one last beautiful photo before it died.
- The telescope was decommissioned in January after serving more than 16 long years in space.
- The telescope was only expected to serve up to five years, but it received multiple extensions and proved to be one of NASA's most trusted tools.
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When NASA launched its Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003, it had hoped that the spacecraft would spend up to five full years capturing magnificent images of the cosmos. Five years is a long time to scan the skies, but the space agency believed that Spitzer was ready for work. It turns out that five years were not only doable, but a piece of cake. The spacecraft then spent a total of more than 16 years providing scientists with valuable observations.
Spitzer was finally decommissioned on January 30, 2020, but before NASA disconnected, he shot one last glorious image for us to remember.
What you see above is that final image. The mass of gas and dust is the California Nebula, located about 1,000 light years from Earth. It doesn't look much like California here, because it was filmed by Spitzer's infrared camera, but when viewed in the visible spectrum, it vaguely resembles the state.
"Visible light comes from gas in the nebula that is heated by a nearby and extremely massive star known as Xi Persei or Menkib," explains NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Spitzer's infrared view reveals a different characteristic: warm dust, with a consistency similar to soot, that mixes with the gas. The dust absorbs visible and ultraviolet light from nearby stars and then re-emits the absorbed energy as light infrared. "
Spitzer's incredible mission and his long life in space came to an end due to his increasing distance from Earth. The telescope was not placed in Earth's orbit, but rather in an Earth-like Sun-centered orbit. However, since the spacecraft was not moving as fast as the Earth around the Sun, it slowly became more and more distant.
For Spitzer to communicate with Earth, it had to maintain a specific orientation, pointing its antennas at our planet and relaying its observations to its controllers. When he did, he had to remove his solar panels from the sunlight. As the spacecraft moved further away from our planet, these adjustments became more dramatic, and by the time NASA was ready to end the mission, the telescope could only communicate with Earth for approximately 2.5 hours before it had have to adjust again.
Ultimately, NASA simply couldn't justify maintaining the telescope much longer, and at the end of last year they decided to schedule its decommissioning.