Ever wanted to take a selfie in space? How about a tour of exoplanets that would otherwise take half a lifetime to reach?
Neither of these would be possible, even as smartphone apps, without the imaging power of the Spitzer Space Telescope, whose 15th anniversary NASA is now celebrating with virtual experiences that really make you feel like you’re floating in microgravity.
Put on a virtual spacesuit and take unreal selfies in the Orion Nebula or the center of the Milky Way (nowhere near its supermassive black hole, of course). The NASA Selfies app for iOS and Android lets you blow up the ‘gram with images of your face in an astro-helmet against these and many other destinations far beyond our planet, with 30 images of places even astronauts have never seen from a spaceship window. HD is an understatement.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a NASA production if the app didn’t also tell you things you never knew about the science behind these breathtaking images. There will be more photo ops as the agency adds shots from other science and human spaceflight missions in the future. This possibly means that someday you can make everyone on Insta think you took a vacation to Mars.
If you want to jump on a guided tour of TRAPPIST-1, the Exoplanet Excursions app for Oculus and Vive will take you there. It was Spitzer that made the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which not only blew up the internet last year but also gave scientists valuable data to determine the planets’ probable compositions. The seven planets orbiting star TRAPPIST-1 are too far for direct observation, but the artists’ renderings that reveal what the planets might look like are pretty mind-blowing.
The power behind these apps has been NASA’s telescopic eye into the universe since 2003. Spitzer was the last of the space agency’s four Great Observatories (think Hubble) to take off, and in its 106,000 hours and counting of observation, the floating infrared observatory has beamed back astounding images of everything from the newest stars to the oldest galaxies in the cosmos. It has gazed at black holes, found out what comets are made of, produced an exoplanet weather map and an epic map of the Milky Way, identified more galaxy clusters than anyone ever knew were out there, and shed light on a previously unknown ring around Saturn. Never mind the TRAPPIST-1 discovery that really ignited the search for life beyond Earth.
Spitzer was also the first telescope ever to directly detect the light of extrasolar planets such as hot Jupiters—which has forever changed how we illuminate their existence in the dark.
"In its 15 years of operations, Spitzer has opened our eyes to new ways of viewing the universe," said NASA Astrophysics Division director Paul Hertz. "Spitzer's discoveries extend from our own planetary backyard, to planets around other stars, to the far reaches of the universe. And by working in collaboration with NASA's other Great Observatories, Spitzer has helped scientists gain a more complete picture of many cosmic phenomena."
Spitzer “sees” bodies in space by picking up infrared light, usually detecting the heat radiation that warm objects give off. The telescope is so sensitive it has been able to find galaxies up to 13.4 billion light-years away. Meaning, scientists on terra firma now see them as they were 400 million years after the Big Bang. That’s virtually the birth of the universe.
While it wasn’t originally designed to observe exoplanets, Spitzer has more than adapted and now uses half its observation time to let researchers in on planets that range from being nearly as searing as their stars to frozen faraway orbs. While its helium supply was exhausted after its primary mission, during which it was in a “cold phase” that was ideal for detecting cold objects, it entered the “warm phase” it still operates in, with two of the cameras in its Infrared Array Camera (IAC) still maintaining the same sensitivity they had previously.
What will Spitzer find next? The telescope is expected to stay alive through November 2019, but it has exceeded so many expectations so far, it could just end up being immortal. Almost.