Launched into a solar orbit on Aug. 25, 2003, Spitzer trails behind Earth and has been gradually drifting farther away from our planet. Spitzer was the final of NASA’s four Great Observatories to reach space. Initially scheduled for a minimum 2.5-year primary mission, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has lasted far beyond its expected lifetime.
#1: The first exoplanet weather map
Spitzer detects infrared light, which is often emitted by warm objects such as heat radiation. While Spitzer mission designers never planned to use the observatory to study planets beyond our solar system, its infrared vision has proven to be an invaluable tool in this field.
In May 2009, scientists using data from Spitzer produced the first-ever “weather map” of an exoplanet — a planet that orbits a star other than the Sun. This exoplanet weather map charted temperature variations over the surface of a giant gas planet, HD 189733b. In addition, the study revealed that roaring winds likely whip through the planet’s atmosphere. The image above shows an artist’s impression of the planet.
#2: Hidden cradles of newborn stars
Infrared light can, in most cases, penetrate gas and dust clouds better than visible light. As a result, Spitzer has provided unprecedented views into regions where stars are born. This image from Spitzer shows newborn stars peeking out from beneath their natal blanket of dust in the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud.
Called “Rho Oph” by astronomers, this cloud is one of the closest star-forming regions to our own Solar System. Located near the constellations Scorpius and Ophiuchus on the sky, the nebula is about 410 light years away from Earth.