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FEATURE ARTICLE

Spitzer’s Cold Look at Space

To get a clear view of infrared emissions from celestial objects, the Spitzer Space Telescope has been cryogenically cooled—and what sights it has seen

Michael Werner

infrared image Milky Way galaxyClick to Enlarge ImageCelestial objects scattered about outer space vary greatly in composition and behavior, but most of them have one thing in common—they all emit infrared radiation. It’s very hard for Earthbound scientists to pick up on this treasure-trove of emitted information, however, because the heat of the Earth’s atmosphere tends to wash out the signals. Enter the Spitzer Space Telescope, launched in August 2003, and named for the late Lyman Spitzer, one of the main driving forces behind the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. The Spitzer Space Telescope is cryogenically cooled so its own heat will not blur the infrared coming from space, giving it an unprecedented crystal-clear view of the IR spectrum. Michael Werner, project scientist for the telescope that he has been working on since 1977, describes Spitzer’s haul of galaxies, extrasolar planets, nascent stars and brown dwarf star surveys that are amongst the immense amount of new data that the telescope has collected. Spitzer’s cryogenic coolant ran out this year; it now begins a two-year “warm” phase (still plenty cold at only 30 kelvins) where it will continue to image forming stars and near-Earth objects.


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