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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.
 

Stars

Spitzer will provide new and important insights into the formation and evolution of stars, and their immediate ("circumstellar") environment. The discovery and characterization of circumstellar disks of gas and dust, the signatures of extra-solar planetary systems, is one of the core scientific goals of the Spitzer mission.

Pillars of Creation
Eagle Nebula
NASA/HST/ J. Hester & P. Scowen

Molecular Clouds

Giant molecular clouds, comprised primarily of hydrogen, provide the reservoir of raw materials from which stars are born. These clouds, scattered throughout the interstellar medium of our Milky Way Galaxy, contain enough dense gas and dust to form hundreds of thousands of Sun-like stars. Spitzer will study the temperature and density of molecular clouds in order to characterize the physical conditions and chemical compositions from which protostars are formed.


Star Formation

Stars are born within cocoons of dust and dense molecular gas, and are mostly hidden from view at visible wavelengths. Near-infrared light, at wavelengths of a few microns, can pierce through the dusty veil to provide astronomers with a peek at a newborn star. Spitzer will use its short-wavelength camera to probe the formation and early evolution of young stellar objects in the first million years of their life. (In astronomical terms, a million years is a bried period of time. Many stars live for billions of years.) Spitzer observations will also reveal the extent to which new stars are formed in clusters, rather than in isolation.

OMC-1
OMC-1 (visible/infrared)
NASA/HST/C.R. O'Dell (WFPC2), R. Thompson (NICMOS)

Circumstellar Disks

A substantial amount of Spitzer observing time will be devoted to the study of circumstellar ("surrounding star") dust disks. These flat disks enshrouding young stars are thought to be a common feature of stellar evolution and of planetary system formation. Primordial protoplanetary disks contain gas and dust and provide the raw materials from which future planetary systems can form. Planetary debris disks represent a later stage of evolution, with most of the gas having been dissipated. These disks are comprised mostly of small dust grains presumably formed from collisions between small planetesimals and larger rocky bodies.

Spitzer will be able to detect and characterize circumstellar disks around nearby stars, providing key information about the formation of planetary systems. Attempting to see the faint disk at visible wavelengths is extremely difficult because of the bright light from the parent star. However, the relative difference is reduced in the infrared, where Spitzer will conduct its measurements. The Observatory will study hundreds of nearby stars in order determine the frequency of these disks. It will also use imaging and spectroscopy to search to characterize the spatial structure and composition of the disks. These data will prove invaluable in addressing the frequency and nature of planetary systems beyond our own.

Circumstellar Disk HD 141569
Protoplanetary Disk Seen in Silhouette
NASA/HST/M. McCaughrean
Planetary Debris Disk Around HD 141569
NASA/HST/A. Weinberger

Brown Dwarf
Artist Depiction of a Brown Dwarf
NASA/IPAC/R. Hurt

Dwarfs & Low-Mass Stars

While bright and massive stars may dominate the night sky, most of the stellar mass in galaxies is found in low-luminosity, low-mass stars. These stars live for billions of years, but are dimmer and cooler than our Sun, and hence can be difficult to detect at visible wavelengths. Spitzer will use its infrared capabilities to detect and characterize these objects. Particular attention will be devoted to the discovery and characterization of brown dwarfs. These objects are too small to ignite the thermonuclear reactions that define a star, and hence radiate primarily in the infrared. Brown dwarfs were a theoretical concept only when Spitzer was first proposed. Since the mid-1990s, various telescopes and surveys such as 2MASS have identified a few hundred of these objects, with temperatures extending below 2000 K. Spitzer will detect thousands of brown dwarfs, including those only slightly larger than Jupiter, thereby providing a sufficiently large sample for statistical analyses.


Pleiades
Pleiades Cluster
AAO/ROE/D. Malin

Star Clusters

Spitzer observations in this realm will focus primarily on open (or galactic) clusters, gravitationally bound systems of thousands of young stars typically found within the plane of our Galaxy. Clusters are thought to be a natural location for discovering faint brown dwarfs. Spitzer will conduct detailed imaging studies of the Pleiades and Hyades clusters, in part to search for previously unseen cluster members as small as ten Jupiter masses.


Evolved Stars

Spitzer will carry out various programs of research into the late evolutionary phases of stars. Once it has exhausted most of its thermonuclear fuel over tens of millions to billions of years, a star like our Sun will enter a rapidly changing stage of its life, with its behavior and ultimate fate depending on the initial mass of the star. During the late stages of its life, a star typically ejects gaseous material from its outer layers, either through gentle periodic processes (such as a nova), or through a violent cataclysmic explosion (supernova). Spitzer will study the stellar ejecta in planetary nebulae, providing information about the temperature and chemical composition of the ejected material, and on the mass loss rates of the parent star. The gas and dust thrown off dying stars is an important constituent of the interstellar medium, and its study is essential for understanding not only stellar death, but the birth of the next generation of stars.

Cat's Eye Hourglass NGC 7027
Cat's Eye Nebula
NASA/HST/P. Harrington
Hourglass Nebula
NASA/HST/R. Sahai & J. Trauger
NCG 7027
NASA/HST/W. B. Latter

Orion Water Vapor
Water Vapor in Orion
ESA/ISO/C.M. Wright

Interstellar Medium

Interspersed between stars is a tenuous interstellar medium (ISM) comprised of dust grains and atomic and molecular gas. Dust absorbs visible and ultraviolet light, increases in temperature, and re-radiates in the infrared. Moreover, many of the most important spectral lines produced by gas in the ISM falls within infrared wavelengths. Spitzer will exploit these fundamental physical traits by conducting spectroscopic studies of the ISM. Among these research investigations will be the important study of water, ices and organic molecules throughout the ISM. Spitzer observations at near-infrared wavelengths will map the inner regions of our Milky Way, yielding important new information that is otherwise obscured by heavy concentrations of dust at visible wavelengths.



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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