The Spitzer Space Telescope explores the skies in a wavelength we're blind to, sensing the heat of infrared. After 3,925 days of service, it's had plenty of time to built up an impressive gallery. Now continued funding is in jeopardy, it's a good time to look back on the gorgeous images of science.

Top image: The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades are feathering, gossamer threads in infrared. More info & full resolution.

Shockwaves around Zeta Ophiuchi. More info & full resolution.

The Spitzer Space Telescope is an infrared telescope, checking out the stars in a lower wavelength than we can see with our naked eyes. This allows astronomers to observe different aspects of supernova, nebula, galaxies, and anything else. It sits in the same heliotropic orbit as the Earth, trailing behind us as we circle the sun

The Helix Nebula in infrared looks more like the delicate colours of an eye's iris than an astrophysical phenomena. More info & full resolution.

The infrared telescope was designed to operate in two phases: a cool phase and a hot phase. It was loaded with enough liquid helium to act as a coolant keeping it cool for 2.5 years, although it managed to last a full 5.5 years instead. Ever since then, it's been running warm using the near to mid-infrared instrument channels to gaze at the universe around it.

A full view of the Helix Nebula in infrared. More info & full resolution.

The Rosette Nebula is a planetary danger zone, full of hot stars that strip planet-forming material off of younger stars. More info & full resolution.


Spitzer is part of NASA's collection of Great Observatories. Each telescope observes in a different wavelength: the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) detects visible light, the Chandra X-Ray Observatories (CXO) detects X-rays, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (CGRO) detects gamma rays, and Spitzer (SST) detects infrared. The quartet occasionally cooperate on projects, producing multi-wavelength composite images.

Spitzer is capable of conducting surveys covering large areas quickly, or alternately staring at the same place for a long time with interruptions only to 24 to 48 hours to downlink observation data to earth.


Spitzer teamed up with the Hubble Space Telescope to peek in on at the Orion Nebula for this composite infrared and visible light image. More info & full resolution.

Spitzer teamed up with the Chandra Space Telescope to look under the wing of the Small Magellanic Cloud for this composite infrared and X-ray image. More info & full resolution.

The tiny corner of the United States budget dedicated to space exploration is spread thin. So many missions succeed far longer than anticipated, leading scientists to request funding extensions to keep functional projects supplied with time and resources to support them. The Spitzer Space Telescope has outlived its anticipated 5 lifespan, is working great 11 years on, but didn't make the cut.

This image of the Crab Nebula uses date from three of NASA's Great Observatories, with Chandra's X-rays in blue, Hubble's optical light in red and yellow, and Spitzer in purple. More info & full resolution.


The relevant portion of the report starts "The Spitzer mission extension for FY 2015 is not approved due to the constrained budget conditions and based on the findings and recommendations of the Senior Review report." It continues on to outline the death-plan for Spitzer: work normally during 2014, and brace itself to close out at the end of 2015. However, if NASA approves new funding in 2016, the closeout in 2015 would allow for seamless continuation of operations in 2016. Practically speaking, the only way that's going to happen is if huge public outcry demands it (like what happened when the beloved Hubble Space Telescope was on the chopping block).

The Mountains of Creation dwarf the photogenic pillars in the Eagle Nebula. More info & full resolution.


The Spitzer team is optimistic. The day of the announcement, they took to their Twitter account repeatedly telling people, "To be clear: Spitzer has not been canceled. Funding not yet identified, but NASA has asked us for a revised budget."

The dark clouds of Rho Ophiuchi cuddle stars in a baby blanket of dust. More info & full resolution.


Current estimates are that if Spitzer Space Telescope gets the funding for continued scientific support, it's game to keep on functioning for a total lifespan of 10 to 15 years. The hope is to find a plan that will let it keep working until its successor comes online 2018. That's when NASA's new James Webb Space Telescope will step in to continue research into infrared astronomy.

This rosebud was the first Spitzer image I saw, and the perfect Valentine's astrophotograph. More info & full resolution.


All images credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/Spitzer Space Telescope. Did you hear that the Kepler Space Telescope earned a reprieve for a continuing life of exploration?