The Spitzer Space Telescope is NASA's infrared observatory, the final component in NASA's collection of "Great Observatories." It trails Earth in orbit around the sun to send back detailed information about space.
Imagine observing the universe through infrared goggles. That's basically what Spitzer does. Spitzer’s infrared sensors detect heat from objects that our eyes (and optical telescopes) can’t see. This lets us look right through dense clouds of gas and dust to see regions where stars form, the centers of galaxies, newly forming planetary systems and objects like smaller stars and extra-solar planets that are too dim to see in visible light.
The Earth's atmosphere absorbs most incoming infrared radiation. So to look at the infrared light from distant stars and galaxies, Spitzer trails the Earth as it orbits the Sun. Spitzer is one of NASA’s four space-based Great Observatories. Each one examines the sky in a different wavelength: X-ray, gamma-ray, infrared or visible light.
This just in!
Scientists just discovered a system of seven planets, all Earth-sized, orbiting an ultra-cool star called TRAPPIST-1. The tiny star is "only" 40 light-years from Earth.
We call planets outside our own solar system exoplanets. It's especially exciting to discover Earth-sized exoplanets because we know that any place similar enough to our own home planet could be a good place to look more closely for signs of life. Three of TRAPPIST-1's seven planets are at just the right distance away from the star to be at the right temperature to have liquid water. We call that area around a star the habitable zone because liquid water is necessary for a planet to support life as we know it.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is named for the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile that discovered the first two planets. But the NASA Spitzer Telescope discovered the other five planets in orbit around TRAPPIST-1. Now other telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Kepler Space Observatory will go to work on gathering more details about the TRAPPIST-1 system. There couldn't be a more exciting time to get into the fields of astrophysics and planetary science. This is amazing stuff!
The Science Center's Spitzer Space Telescope
The Spitzer telescope on display in the gallery is a 1/5th-scale model provided by the Image Processing and Analysis Center at JPL-Caltech.