Dale Flippo

Launched in 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope was one of four large telescopes NASA sent into space. It was named after the astronomer Lyman Spitzer, who had promoted the concept of putting telescopes into space. 

It was placed in a heliocentric orbit, trailing the Earth rather than in an orbit around Earth. Its mirror was 33 inches in diameter, made of beryllium rather than quartz.  Because it viewed the universe in the infrared wavelength, it was cooled to negative-450 degrees Fahrenheit. This is 9 degrees above absolute zero. Putting the Spitzer Space Telescope in space and cooling the telescope allowed it to view infrared wavelengths at a greater sensitivity.  

Once launched, the Spitzer Space Telescope was able to perform a job that it wasn’t designed for. It was able to visually detect planets around other stars, called exoplanets. It was able to view early proto-planetary disks that form planets around other stars. One of its greatest discoveries was five planets around the star named TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets orbit the star within the habitual zone where liquid water could exist. Each of the planets is also the same size as the Earth. 

The Spitzer Space Telescope also redefined the shape of the Milky Way galaxy.

Before Spitzer, astronomers thought that the Milky Way was a spiral shaped galaxy. With data gathered from the Spitzer Space Telescope, they discovered a bar structure at the core of the galaxy. 

For 16 years, the Spitzer Space Telescope functioned perfectly. As of last month, it was retired. NASA put the telescope into “sleep mode.” Another task for the Spitzer Space Telescope was to examine candidates for the next telescope to be launched in 2021. The mapping of these objects is to be examined in detail by the James Webb Telescope, which is also an infrared telescope. The Spitzer Space Telescope was one telescope that exceeded everyone’s expectations.   

Venus will be easily visible in the evenings this month. It will be above the moon on Feb. 27.  

On Feb 10, both Venus and Mercury will be visible shortly after sunset. Mercury will be close to the horizon, and Venus will be higher in the sky.

The moon will pass in front of Mars on the morning of Feb. 18. It can be viewed without any optical aid, but it will look best through a telescope. The event will start at 5:51 a.m.

Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars will all be visible in the morning skies during the last two weeks. Saturn will be closest to the horizon, with Jupiter and Mars higher on the eastern horizon.  

From Feb. 18-20, the waning crescent moon will be close to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the early hours.      

The Springfield Astronomical Society will host its next meeting on Feb. 25. It will be held at the Library Center, which is located at 4653 South Campbell Ave. in Springfield. For more information, visit the club’s website at http://www.springfieldastronomy.org.

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