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The Cat's Paw Nebula seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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.
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.
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.
The James Webb Space Telescope's sunshield in a clean room. Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn
NASA is coming off decades of science beamed back to Earth by big telescopes launched in the 1990s and 2000s.
What's next? NASA has a lot riding on the launch of JWST in 2021. The long-delayed infrared-focused telescope is billed as Hubble's successor, and it will mark a turning point for astronomy.
On the horizon: The agency's WFIRST mission — which is designed to investigate dark energy and image exoplanets — has been on the budgetary chopping block a number of times, but its funding was reinstated by a House bill reported out of committee on May 22.
The bottom line: While NASA focuses its astrophysics resources on large, expensive and highly scrutinized missions like JWST and WFIRST, the agency could be missing out on smaller, less costly telescopes that have huge scientific value.
"I'm worried that we're not diversifying in terms of more medium-sized missions and more small missions and more nanosats. The more and more of that time and energy and budget that gets put into these mega-missions, which just keep getting bigger and bigger, it's a squeeze."— NASA researcher Jessie Christiansen to Axios
Many skywatchers were delighted to spot a bright line of SpaceX's internet-beaming Starlink satellites pass overhead this weekend, but to astronomers, it was an ominous sign of things to come.
Why it matters: Bright satellites in the night sky can affect astronomy by getting in the way of sensitive, long exposure photos. Usually, researchers can work around these satellites by tracking their orbits and accounting for their predictable movements, but with more satellites come more complications.
Driving the news: The 60 Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX on May 23 were unexpectedly bright when they first deployed, McDowell says, rivaling even the brightest stars in the sky and stoking fears about what these satellites might mean for astronomy.
The big picture: While these specific satellites may not be that big of a deal in the long run, the large constellations they portend could be an unexpected contributor to light pollution in the night sky for everyone.
A massive iceberg breaks off from the Larsen-C ice shelf in Antarctica on July 12, 2019, as seen via an ESA satellite. Photo: ESA via Getty Images
Private companies have been launching constellations of Earth-observing satellites for years, but they've been focused on beaming back images taken using visible light. That's starting to change, however, as new firms enter what's currently a niche market: synthetic aperture radar (SAR), Axios science editor Andrew Freedman reports.
Details: SAR allows for data-gathering regardless of weather conditions, making it especially useful for monitoring the planet's disappearing ice sheets that are cloaked in darkness for half the year.
The players: Three noteworthy companies in this area are Ursa Space Systems, Capella Space and ICEYE.
Between the lines: While primary business customers may be financial firms and governments, scientists could benefit immensely from new, highly capable SAR constellations.
Stef Lhermitte, a researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, uses SAR imagery from ESA's Sentinel satellites to track Antarctic glaciers. He calls such data a "game changer."
Apollo 15 astronauts on the moon. Photo: NASA
A team of scientists was awarded a cache of previously unopened Apollo-era Moon rock samples this year to turn back the clock and see exactly what kinds of materials were abundant on the Moon in its early history.
Why it matters: Researchers have long been interested in figuring out exactly what’s been going on in the interior of our Moon, and this new experiment — which is happening about 50 years after the lunar rock sample was collected — could help create a more complete picture of the history of our natural satellite.
Details: The team will bombard samples of volcanic lunar glass collected during the Apollo 15 mission with photons using the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source.
Background: NASA saved some samples of moon rocks from the Apollo program in the hopes that scientists would be able to gain new insights with technology that was yet to be developed.
A SpaceX rocket launch to the International Space Station. Photo: SpaceX
The Pentagon launched another space agency. Do we need it? (Sarah Scoles, Wired)
UFOs exist: Get used to it (Daniel Drezner, The Washington Post)
Particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann dies at 89 (Kaveh Waddell, Axios)
SpaceX raised over $1 billion this year (Michael Sheetz, CNBC)
Sirangelo leaves NASA after exploration reorganization scrapped (Jeff Foust, Space News)
NGC 7752 (larger) and NGC 7753 (smaller) merging. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A photo taken by Spitzer and released in March shows two galaxies — one large, spiral galaxy and another smaller one — in the act of colliding 272 million light-years from Earth.
Our Milky Way is heading for a collision of its own with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years. Right now, Andromeda is still located about 2.5 million light-years from Earth, so don't worry about that cosmic crash quite yet.
Thanks for spending time with me this week. See you next Tuesday! 📡