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NASA Spitzer Space Telescope • Jet Propulsion Laboratory
• California Institute of Technology
• Vision for Space Exploration
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Frame Frame About the Spitzer Space Telescope Frame Frame
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Fast Facts
Current Status
Spitzer History
Spitzer Technology
Spitzer Science
— Why Infrared?
— Science Overview
— Planets
— Stars
— Galaxies
— Universe
— Glossary
Lyman Spitzer, Jr.

Science Overview

Spitzer is the infrared component of NASA's family of Great Observatories, and will study a wide variety of astronomical phenomena, extending from our Solar System to the distant reaches of the early Universe. Providing coverage at infrared wavelength between 3 and 180 microns, Spitzer provides an important scientific complement to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The shortest IR wavelengths will pierce through the heavy obscuration of dust and allow astronomers to study newly formed stars. The longer IR wavelengths are well suited to studying the distribution of dust, an important ingredient of future planet and star formation, throughout the Milky Way Galaxy.

Hubble Spitzer Chandra
Credits: (a) NASA/HST, (b) NASA/Spitzer, (c) NASA/CXO

Nearly 80 percent of the observing time on Spitzer will be available to the scientific community-at-large through competitive proposals solicited by the Spitzer Science Center. To date, about one-fifth of the Spitzer mission (assuming a 5-year mission) has been defined through the Legacy Science Program, the First-Look Survey and the Guaranteed Time Observations. Solicitations for the balance of the science program will be issued on an annual basis, starting shortly before launch. Requests for Spitzer observing time should be submitted in response to these Calls for Proposals, and submitted proposals will be peer-reviewed in a competitive process.

One consequence of the re-designs of Spitzer in the early 1990s was the decision to design Spitzer such that it would make important and lasting contributions in these four science themes:

Artist Conception of a Brown Dwarf
Credit: NASA/IPAC/R. Hurt

The Search for Brown Dwarfs and Super-Planets

These objects have too little mass to ignite the fusion reactions which power stars, but are larger and warmer than planets found in our Solar System. Astronomers are now starting to detect these long-sought objects and want to know the extent to which they might account for the elusive dark matter that is thought to permeate the Universe. Spitzer will provide invaluable information about their population and physical characteristics.

Circumstellar Debris Disk
Credit: ESO/VLT/J.L. Beuzit
(Obs. Grenoble) et al.

The Discovery and Study of Debris Disks Around Nearby Stars

Spitzer will determine the structure and composition of disks of dust and gas surrounding nearby stars. The proto-planetary disks of dust and gas and the planetary debris disks, a later stage of evolution in which most of the gas has been depleted, are thought to be the signposts of planetary systems in formation. By observing disks of various ages, Spitzer can trace the evolution of a formless cloud of dust and gas into a mature system of planets.

Credit: NASA/HST/R. Thompson
(Univ. Arizona)

The Study of Ultraluminous Infrared Galaxies and Active Galactic Nuclei

Many galaxies emit more radiation at infrared wavelengths than in all other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum combined. These ultraluminous IR galaxies could be triggered by intense bursts of star formation stimulated by colliding galaxies, or by dust-enshrouded active galactic nuclei (including quasars) powered by black holes. Spitzer will trace the origins and evolution of these objects to cosmological distances.

Hubble Deep Field
Credit: NASA/HST/R.
Williams (STScI)

The Study of the Early Universe

Cosmological redshifts result from the expansion of the Universe, shifting the observed light from astronomical phenomena to longer wavelengths. Objects at high redshifts are seen as they existed long ago. Most of the optical and ultraviolet radiation emitted from stars and galaxies since the beginning of time is now shifted into the infrared. Spitzer will provide important insights into when and how the first stars and galaxies formed.

Apart from being scientifically interesting in their own right, these themes are directly relevant to NASA's Origins Program, which seeks to understand the origins of the Universe, galaxies, stars, and planets.

While these themes drove the budget-mandated re-design of the Observatory, it should be emphasized that Spitzer's powerful capabilities will be applied to a wide range of other astronomical topics. Moreover, Spitzer offers unparalleled capabilities in a space-borne infrared telescope. History has repeatedly demonstrated that such huge advances lead to serendipitous discoveries of unanticipated phenomena. With Spitzer, astronomers expect the unexpected!

The Spitzer Space Telescope is a NASA mission managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This website is maintained by the Spitzer Science Center, located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology and part of NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center. Privacy Policy

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