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For more information, contact:

Bill Steigerwald
Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt, Md.
(Phone: 301 286 5017)

Spitzer space telescope

Infrared astronomy

Viewable Images

High-resolution images:

Item 1

(1 meg JPG image)


Artist's concept of the Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope. Light collecting telescopes located at opposite ends of a boom direct light into a central beam-combining instrument, where interferometric fringe patterns are produced in a Michelson interferometer. The telescopes move along the boom and the boom rotates to provide access to many interferometric baselines, yielding the information required to synthesize a high-resolution image of an astronomical object. Multiple layers of sun shielding protect the cryogenically cold optics, and state-of-the-art detectors are used to provide unprecedented far-infrared sensitivity.

Image credit: NASA

Item 2

(732 k JPG image)


SPIRIT will image dust in debris disks, revealing the presence of planets. These images show the predicted infrared emission at 40, 60, and 100 micron wavelengths color coded as blue, green, and red, respectively. The effects of a planet (+) at two orbital phases can be seen by comparing the image on the left with the one on the right. SPIRIT will resolve the lumps and ripples of dust in debris disks out to 30 pc. The Spitzer Space Telescope has already found many tens of candidate debris disks within 30 pc based on their infrared spectra, but SPIRIT will be needed to image these systems.

Image Credit: Model courtesy of Marc Kuchner, Princeton University

Item 3

(655 k JPG image)


At far-infrared wavelengths the Spitzer Space Telescope sees a blur of emission from hundreds of galaxies at a time, and even a 10-meter diameter telescope would see the blended emission of many galaxies in a single resolution element. With angular resolution finer than 1 second of arc, SPIRIT will distinguish the far-infrared and submillimeter wavelength emissions of individual galaxies and measure the spectrum of each galaxy it sees. The spectrum will provide a wealth of important information, such as the distance, the physical conditions (temperature and density), the chemical composition, and the rate of star formation. Complementing JWST, which operates at shorter wavelengths, SPIRIT will help astronomers learn how galaxies were assembled from their initial protogalactic building blocks.

Image Credit: NASA, Andrew Benson (University of Durham, United Kingdom), and the JWST Science Team (STScI)

Item 4

(1.1 meg JPG image)


The sequence of evolutionary steps from a molecular cloud core (a) to a planetary system (f) are illustrated according to current understanding. Below each panel we show the angular resolution of one or more far-IR telescopes that will resolve the young stellar object if it is located at the distance of Rho Oph or the Taurus molecular cloud, two nearby sites of star formation. Spitzer and Herschel will be able to resolve protostars during the early phase of cloud core collapse and make important spectroscopic observations, but ALMA, SAFIR, SPIRIT, and SPECS will be needed to complete the picture.

Image Credit: Illustration based on models developed by M. Hogerheijde (1998), Leiden University, The Netherlands, and Shu et al. (1987), National Tsinghua University, Hsinchu, Taiwan


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October 5, 2004 - (date of web publication)



artist's concept of SPIRIT telescope

Item 1


A NASA-led team is studying the construction of a railway in space for a pair of telescopes that will provide views of planet, star, and galaxy formation in unprecedented detail. The proposed Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope (SPIRIT) mission will also examine the atmospheric chemistry of giant planets around other stars.




example of SPIRIT telescope resolution

Item 2


SPIRIT will consist of two telescopes at opposite ends of a 120-foot (40-meter) beam. The telescopes will move along the beam like cars on a railway, combining their images using the techniques of interferometry to achieve the resolving power of a single giant telescope 120 feet across.




improved resolution with SPIRIT

Item 3


NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., will lead a NASA/university/industry team to develop a preliminary design for SPIRIT. The team will evaluate various mission concepts, create a roadmap of the technology development required for the mission, and generate independent cost assessments.




resolution improvements with SPIRIT and future infrared telescopes

Item 4


The study was commissioned in July 2004 by NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., as one of nine proposals that will help strategic planning for NASA's Origins Space Science research theme. NASA's Origins program seeks to answer the fundamental questions about the universe, such as where we came from and whether or not we are alone. The team will report to the Origins Roadmap Committee in early January, 2005, and a final report is due three months later.

"I'm delighted that SPIRIT was chosen for study," said Dr. David Leisawitz of NASA Goddard, Principal Investigator for the proposed mission. "We're going to give NASA a chance to build a telescope that will dazzle the world with crisp, clear infrared pictures of the universe."

"These images will help us to answer some very profound questions. How did we living critters wind up on a rocky planet bathed in light from the Sun, one of a hundred billion stellar denizens of the magnificently spiral-shaped Milky Way galaxy? Perhaps even more tantalizing, we should expect the unexpected, as that's what we find whenever a big step is taken to improve the scientific community's tools. SPIRIT will use techniques pioneered a century ago by Nobel Laureate Albert A. Michelson, so we know it can be done, and I think it's an excellent match to the Origins mission class envisioned in NASA's call for proposals," said Leisawitz.

SPIRIT will examine the universe in the far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths of light. This light is invisible to the human eye, but some types of infrared light are perceived as heat.

The processes that build planets, stars, and galaxies are most readily visible in these kinds of light. For example, stars are born when massive interstellar clouds collapse under their own gravity. The collapse generates heat, causing the central star-forming region of the cloud to glow in infrared. Newborn stars are frequently surrounded by disks of dust and gas, which also collapse under their own gravity to form planets. While the planets are too small to be seen directly, their gravity disturbs the dust disk, forming ripples and lumps. Warmed by the central star, the dust glows in infrared light, revealing the dusty structures to SPIRIT and divulging the locations and sizes of previously unknown planets.

Looking farther into space is equivalent to seeing back in time, because the speed of light is finite, and it takes light a significant amount of time to traverse immense cosmic distances. We see the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda) as it appeared about two million years ago, because that's how long it took for its light to reach us. We cast our gaze back billions of years by looking toward the limit of the observable universe, and thus can watch galaxies as they evolve. However, since the universe is expanding, light emitted by remote galaxies has been stretched by the expansion of space to infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths, so we need telescopes highly sensitive to these types of light to observe distant galaxy formation.

Many of these objects appear too small, or shine too faintly at their remote distances for existing telescopes to observe in great detail. To accomplish such ambitious observations, SPIRIT will have 100 times the angular resolution (ability to see fine detail) than existing infrared telescopes, complemented with a matching improvement in sensitivity.

Technical challenges to overcome include keeping the telescope mirrors extremely cold (about 4 degrees Kelvin or minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit) so their own heat does not obscure the faint infrared light they are trying to collect. The detectors also need to have greater sensitivity and more pixels. The Goddard/industry team is up to the challenge: "Our engineers love working on this project; there's a lot of room for creative thought, and everyone understands that this is an opportunity to take a giant leap forward scientifically while inspiring the next generation of explorers." says Leisawitz.

If approved, SPIRIT could be ready for launch in 2014, on board a large expendable rocket. SPIRIT would travel to the L2 libration point one million miles from Earth where it will automatically unfold its beam and deploy the telescopes. The Goddard-led team includes collaborators from Caltech, Cornell, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Maryland, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Naval Research Laboratory, Princeton, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Wisconsin, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Marshall Space Flight Center. The industry team includes Ball Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Northrop-Grumman.



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