Could NASA revive the Spitzer Space Telescope?


Could NASA revive the Spitzer Space Telescope?

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has been shut down in 2020. A new mission may bring it back to life. Credit: Ria Space Activity

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has served the astronomy community well for 16 years. From its launch in 2003 until the end of its operations in January 2020, its infrared observations have fueled scientific discoveries too numerous to list.

Infrared telescopes need to be kept cool in order to work, and eventually they run out of coolant. But that wasn’t the end of the job. It continued to operate in the “warm” mode, where feedback was limited. Its mission only ended when it got too far from Earth to communicate effectively.

NASA now thinks they can restart the telescope.

Spitzer was one of four powerful space observatories in NASA’s Great Observatories program. The other three are Hubble, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Together, they covered gamma raysX ray visible lightAnd ultraviolet and infrared radiation. (Radio waves can be easily observed from Earth.) Compton was deorbited in 2000, and Hubble and Chandra are still working.

While JWST is a much more powerful infrared instrument than Spitzer, its observation time is much needed. Also, not all notes require such extreme force. Spitzer could still perform scientifically valuable observations if it works.

Could NASA revive the Spitzer Space Telescope?

This montage contains photos from Spitzer’s first twelve years of operations. Image credit: NASA/JPL

But NASA now thinks it may be able to return Spitzer to operations. They have awarded Ria space activity STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) $250,000 to develop the Spitzer Resurrector (SRM) mission. The SRM will travel to the Spitzer site, service it, and return it to observational operations.

Spitzer follows an unusual Earth-tracking orbit around the sun, not a geocentric orbit like Hubble. Over time, Spitzer drifted, and in 2016 it had to be reoriented and propelled at an extreme angle in order to make contact with Earth. But this means that the Solar Panels It was not fully lit, which limits operations. Finally, on January 30, 2020, NASA sent the telescope a stop signal and declared the mission over.

The telescope orbits the Sun at a distance of 1 AU and is now on the far side of the Sun, about 2 AU from Earth.

So Spitzer is out there with its equipment intact, but outside the radiator and struggling to collect enough solar energy to do anything. But it’s in safe mode, it’s not dead. The STR task will correct this.

STR is a remote robotics mission that will travel about 300 million kilometers (186 million miles) and rendezvous with Spitzer. “The Spitzer Resurrector is designed to restart Spitzer, confirm that it has been restored to its original performance capabilities, and then remain nearby to act as a high-speed data relay to Earth, thus restoring Spitzer to its full efficiency,” said Ria Space Activity. In a press release.

Could NASA revive the Spitzer Space Telescope?

The Spitzer Space Telescope Observatory trails behind Earth as it orbits the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you succeed, it will be an amazing achievement. Being able to service spacecraft in this way would be another significant leap in space astronomy’s capabilities.

Before the mission was shut down, Spitzer observation time was in great demand among astronomers. Once the telescope is back up and running, it will no doubt be busy with astronomical observations again. But Spitzer’s role will also be to find and characterize near-Earth objects, something the telescope helped pioneer with its infrared capabilities.

The effort to activate Spitzer is part of the Space Assembly and Manufacturing Service (ISAM), and the technologies used by STR are being explored by the Department of the Air Force (DAF) and the United States Space Force (USSF). So the STR report will also be a technical showcase for those technologies.

“The implications of ISAM for resurrecting Spitzer are amazing,” said Sean Osman, astrophysicist and CEO of Ria Space Activity. “This will be the most complex robotic mission ever undertaken by mankind. As a teenager in the 1990s, I watched American astronauts repair the first great observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and now RIA space activity has been given the opportunity for robots to extend the life of the last great observatory.” I am delighted that Dr. Giovanni Fazio, Principal Investigator of the Spitzer Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), will be a co-investigator on this ambitious mission.”

Spitzer’s IRAC instrument has been a prolific piece of equipment, and its data has led to thousands of scientific papers. While this mission will return Spitzer to operations, it won’t actually be attached to the telescope, so you won’t be able to add coolant. The telescope will still be restricted to the warm mode, so IRAC will only work in the two shorter wavelength bands, not the full spectrum of the four it can do.

NASA has given the RIA space activity a Phase 1 STTR, and the RSA relay a Phase 2 STTR. There’s still a lot of work to be done before Spitzer will be operational again, and neither RSA nor NASA have provided a timeline for when the mission will take place.

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