The Last Great Observatory: Spitzer

C-SPAN has a briefing on the Spitzer Space Telescope, previously known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF). Spitzer is the last of of NASA’s Great Observatories, the first and most famous of which is the Hubble Space Telescope.

Spitzer has all the markings of a revolutionary science instrument. Like Hubble, Spitzer is a space-based instrument. This, critically, raises the telescope above the dense, distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. But unlike Hubble – which views the cosmos in the optical wavelengths – Spitzer peers into the infrared, the wavelength of heat.

Why is this important? Two reasons: interstellar gas and dust. Many of the most important regions of study in our galaxy – the star and planet forming nebulae – are composed of gas and dust, the very materials from which the stars and planets condense and form. We could see these regions, we just couldn’t see *into* them. That is, until Spitzer. The gas and dust are cool, while the recently formed stars and proto-planets are quite hot. In the infrared, they shine like fireflies on a summer night. A sort of x-ray vision, if you will.

The initial observations are providing unprecendented views into these star forming regions. Long held theories and models about the time scales and mechanisms of star and planet formation are already being called into question.

Looks like NASA and the folks at Lockheed Martin, who designed and built Spitzer, have hit a home run.

Spitzer Multimedia Gallery
Be sure to watch SIRTF Flash Overview (Cool Cosmos). It’s a beautiful presentation.