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Rogue black holes skulk Milky Way perimeter

...Hundreds of rogue black holes left over from the galaxy building days of the early Universe could be wandering loose in the Milky Way...

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Postcards from MESSENGER

...A previously unknown 690 kilometre wide impact basin and evidence that Mercury's atmosphere and the interaction of its magnetic field with the solar wind are more active than previously thought are the latest offerings from NASA's MESSENGER mission...

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Fermi explores high energy "space invaders"

...New details of high energy particles detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were at the American Physical Society meeting held...

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Video archive

STS-120 day 2 highlights

Flight Day 2 of Discovery's mission focused on heat shield inspections. This movie shows the day's highlights.


STS-120 day 1 highlights

The highlights from shuttle Discovery's launch day are packaged into this movie.


STS-118: Highlights

The STS-118 crew, including Barbara Morgan, narrates its mission highlights film and answers questions in this post-flight presentation.

 Full presentation
 Mission film

STS-120: Rollout to pad

Space shuttle Discovery rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travels to launch pad 39A for its STS-120 mission.


Dawn leaves Earth

NASA's Dawn space probe launches aboard a Delta 2-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to explore two worlds in the asteroid belt.

 Full coverage

Dawn: Launch preview

These briefings preview the launch and science objectives of NASA's Dawn asteroid orbiter.

 Launch | Science

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Spitzer reborn



Posted: 7 May, 2009

After five and a half years of probing the Universe at infrared wavelengths, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope will run out of coolant, marking a new era of “warm” observations.

For a telescope to detect infrared light – essentially heat – from
cool cosmic objects, it must have very little heat output of its own. By the end of the month, however, the liquid helium used to cool some of Spitzer’s instruments to less than three degrees above absolute zero will run out. But this is by no means the end of the mission, just the mission as we currently know it, and with two channels of one instrument still working at full capacity, Spitzer will remain at the forefront of cosmic exploration for a little while longer.

Spitzer seen against an infrared sky. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“We like to think of Spitzer as being reborn,” says Robert Wilson, Spitzer project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Spitzer led an amazing life, performing above and beyond its call of duty. Its primary mission might be over, but it will tackle new scientific pursuits, and more breakthroughs are sure to come.”

The mission has already exceeded expectations, since the cryogen was only projected to last two and a half years, but careful operations and an efficient design allowed it to last more than twice that, resulting in data from the telescope being cited in more than 1,500 scientific papers. Perhaps one of the most revolutionary Spitzer discoveries to date is direct observations of exoplanets and their atmospheres and weather.

“Nobody had any idea Spitzer would be able to directly study
exoplanets when we designed it,” says Spitzer Project Scientist Michael Werner of JPL, who has been working on Spitzer for more than 30 years. “When astronomers planned the first observations, we had no idea if they would work. To our amazement and delight, they did.”

Spitzer discovered that the closest known planetary system to our own, Epsilon Eridani hosts two asteroid belts, in addition to planets an outer comet ring. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Although the new mission phase has been dubbed as ‘warm’, in fact the telescope will still operate at a rather chilly -242 degrees Celsius. While the longer wavelength multi-band imaging photometer and its infrared spectrograph will no longer be cold enough to detect cool objects, the telescope’s two shortest-wavelength detectors in its infrared array camera will continue to function normally, taking in everything from asteroids in our Solar System to distant dusty stars, planet-forming discs and galaxies, as well as continuing to add to the gas giant exoplanet inventory.

“We will do exciting and important science with these two infrared channels,” says Werner. “Our new science program takes advantage of what these channels do best. We’re focusing on aspects of the cosmos that we still have much to learn about.”

Specific tasks on Spitzer’s new work list include refining estimates for the rate at which the Universe is expanding, that is, Hubble’s constant; searching for galaxies at the edge of the Universe; measuring the size distribution of asteroids to assess how often potentially hazardous asteroids might impact Earth; and characterising the atmospheres of gas giant planets that Kepler is predicted to discover.