Today is the 13th anniversary of the launch of the Spitzer Space Telescope, then known by the more prosaic name SIRTF (Space Infrared Telescope Facility). I have a long personal connection with this telescope, and today seems like a good day to look back on it.
On August 25, 2003 I watched the launch from the auditorium at the CfA with quite a few other nervous folks. We were nervous for good reason: space missions don’t always go well and our jobs and scientific careers rested on the spacecraft and its instruments working. At launch, I had been working as part of the IRAC instrument team for about 2 years – but some of the SIRTF team had been working on the mission since I was in elementary school! This history by project scientist Mike Werner tells the story of the very early days up to about a year and half into the mission.
Needless to say, SIRTF didn’t blow up on the launch pad, and we spent a very busy few months activating and testing the telescope and instruments. The IRAC team spent a lot of time in Pasadena at the Spitzer Science Center; I remember volunteering to take (US) Thanksgiving week, since celebrating the holiday at home was more important to many of my colleagues than to little-old-Canadian-me. I also remember being in a coffee shop with someone near the SSC realizing that the next downlink from the spacecraft was about to start, and marvelling at how odd it was that events thousands of kilometres away in space affected how fast I had to walk back from lunch.
One of my tasks in the early mission was to measure the noise performance of IRAC in long exposures, to prove that it met one of its technical specifications. I don’t remember exactly how we did this, but do recall that the pressure of trying to get it done nearly drove me to tears. Much more fun was working on the “Early Release Observations,” science observations made to demonstrate the capabilities of the telescope and show it off. I worked on the IRAC images of M81 and got to go to the press conference at NASA Headquarters where the new Spitzer name was announced and the pictures unveiled. It was slightly embarrassing when I was discovered to be a foreigner (no one had asked me!) and thus needed to wear a badge with a bright red “F” and be escorted everywhere. But hey, it was NASA HQ. I realized later that the person who handed me champagne at the reception afterward was none other than John Grunsfeld. Wow.
After the rush of in-orbit checkout came the rush to do science with the new telescope. This culminated in the “First Results from Spitzer” volume of the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series and the first post-launch observing proposals. I worked as part of the IRAC team until 2007 when I moved to my present job. While at the CfA I was an author on more than 40 papers using Spitzer, and I’m still using its data – 5 papers’ worth in 2016 so far!
Spitzer ran out of cryogen in 2009, but two of the IRAC channels are still working. We used to measure in minutes and seconds how long the camera had been powered on — now it’s years. Werner’s history was written in 2005 and ends
We can therefore anticipate scientific use of Spitzer into the early years of the next decade.
It’s outlived optimistic expectations, and as it enters the next phase of its life, I’m happy to have been associated with a mission that has done so much good science and involved so many great people.