On Jan. 30, 2020, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope, ending one of the agency's most scientifically productive space missions before the spacecraft reaches the end of its mechanical life.
Why it matters: Spitzer was designed to make the invisible visible, allowing scientists to investigate galaxies, stars and planet-forming disks. And even today, Spitzer is yielding new insights.
- A study published in April used Spitzer data to reveal that the universe's earliest galaxies were brighter than expected, changing how scientists understand our early universe.
- In 2017, Spitzer confirmed that seven Earth-sized planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star located 40 light-years away, marking one of the most important exoplanet discoveries to date.
- When Spitzer's mission ends, scientists will lack similar NASA observational capabilities until NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches in 2021.
The big picture: Spitzer is still functional and could likely continue to operate for another couple of years, but NASA decided its less than $14 million annual operating budget could be better used elsewhere.
"Unfortunately, it's kind of getting to the point where the cost to keep it going is worth more than the science ... that you can get out of it. It's a horrible thing to say about a cost-benefit analysis, but scientifically, it gets that much harder to keep the spacecraft functioning." — Jeffrey Hayes, NASA's Spitzer program executive, tells Axios
Details: Because of the telescope's orbit around the sun, it's actually moving farther and farther from the Earth each year. Eventually, the telescope will be too far away to make meaningful communication possible.
- NASA looked to private companies to take over Spitzer operations, but none could line up funding in time.
- Originally, scientists hoped that JWST and Spitzer would be in space at the same time, gathering data in tandem to calibrate the newer telescope, but lengthy JWST delays made that impossible.
What's next? While Spitzer won't gather new data after the beginning of 2020, scientists will still be able to access the trove of information it did collect to search for new discoveries.