A timeline of the Spitzer Space Telescope’s 16 years of science

Spitzer has far outlived expectations, continuing to reveal the wonders of the universe even as its instruments began shutting down.
By | Published: January 28, 2020 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
The “jack-o-lantern” nebula as captured by Spitzer in 2019.

All good things must come to an end.

This includes NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared observatory orbiting the Earth. The telescope, which has been in operation for 16 years, has captured data on exoplanets, far-off galaxies, and unknown mysteries of universe. After an illustrious career, Spitzer is set to retire on January 30.

Here are some highlights from Spitzer’s journey:

August 25, 2003

  • The Spitzer Space Telescope launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

November 2005   

June 2008     

  • After capturing images of the Milky Way for five years, NASA reveals a comprehensive portrait of our home galaxy known as GLIMPSE, short for Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire. When printed at its native resolution, the portrait measures 180 feet long by 4 feet wide.

This panoramic image from GLIMPSE shows a lot of stellar activity in the Milky Way’s plane. The image spans 9° of sky (by 2° tall), about as much as the width of your fist held at arm’s length. This region represents only 7.5 percent of the GLIMPSE survey, which imaged most of the star-forming regions in our galaxy. The red clouds show the presence of large molecules illuminated by nearby stars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/E. Churchwell (University of Wisconsin)

May 19, 2009

  • The telescope’s coolant, essential for helping to reduce noise in images, runs out, officially ending Spitzer’s “cold mission.” Two of Spitzer’s instruments, the Infrared Spectrograph and the Multiband Imaging Photometer become officially unusable. This begins the “warm” phase of Spitzer’s mission.

October 2009 

  • Spitzer discovers an unknown ring around Saturn, called the Phoebe ring. The ring, also the planet’s largest by radius, was only discovered because of Spitzer’s infrared capabilities.

An artist’s illustration shows the grand scale of the Phoebe ring.

July 2010

  • Spitzer finds unique, roughly spherical carbon molecules known as “buckyballs” in space for the first time. The molecules are made of 60 carbon atoms and seem to slough off of the atmospheres of aging, carbon-rich giant stars.

February 2017

An artist’s impression of the star TRAPPIST-1, as seen from above one of the newly-discovered exoplanets.
ESO/M. Kornmesser

October 2018

  • Spitzer is supposed to end its mission, but due to delays on the James Webb Space Telescope, Spitzer’s mission is extended to 2020. This begins Spitzer’s “Beyond” mission.

Jan. 28, 2020     

  •  Spitzer carries out its last day of studying the universe and collecting data.

Jan. 30, 2020

  • Spitzer will receive a command from ground control at NASA to go into “safe mode,” shutting down all the systems on the telescope.