Space

Celebrating Spitzer: 16 years of incredible infrared space photography

Celebrating Spitzer: 16 years ...
One of the most eye-catching shots Spitzer ever took, showing the Helix Nebula, a cloud of dust two light-years wide, with the bright red center hiding a dying star shrouded in its own disk of debris
One of the most eye-catching shots Spitzer ever took, showing the Helix Nebula, a cloud of dust two light-years wide, with the bright red center hiding a dying star shrouded in its own disk of debris
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The glowing patch in the lower-left is the M17 nebula. Off to the right of the image is a dark star-forming cloud that resembles a dragon, which was invisible to visible light and only discovered in infrared.
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The glowing patch in the lower-left is the M17 nebula. Off to the right of the image is a dark star-forming cloud that resembles a dragon, which was invisible to visible light and only discovered in infrared.
This incredible image shows thousands of baby stars (yellow dots) being born in the Orion Nebula. Four huge stars light up the bright area in the center. Red and orange show carbon-rich molecules, while green indicates hydrogen and sulfur gases.
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This incredible image shows thousands of baby stars (yellow dots) being born in the Orion Nebula. Four huge stars light up the bright area in the center. Red and orange show carbon-rich molecules, while green indicates hydrogen and sulfur gases.
This ring made of hot, glowing gas and dust is believed to be created by the intense UV light of an O-type star, the most massive stars known to exist
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This ring made of hot, glowing gas and dust is believed to be created by the intense UV light of an O-type star, the most massive stars known to exist
This sweeping shot of the center of our own Milky Way galaxy captures a mind-boggling amount of stars, once the dusty veil is swept away. This picture spans around 900 light-years.
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This sweeping shot of the center of our own Milky Way galaxy captures a mind-boggling amount of stars, once the dusty veil is swept away. This picture spans around 900 light-years.
The features that give the Monkey Head Nebula its nickname all but disappear in this infrared view. But the swirling gas clouds we’re left with still look stunning in red and green.
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The features that give the Monkey Head Nebula its nickname all but disappear in this infrared view. But the swirling gas clouds we’re left with still look stunning in red and green.
NGC 3242, more awesomely known as the Ghost of Jupiter, is a planetary nebula created during the death throes of a star, still shining brightly in the center
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NGC 3242, more awesomely known as the Ghost of Jupiter, is a planetary nebula created during the death throes of a star, still shining brightly in the center
The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi (the bright blue spot in the center) is flying through space at incredible speeds. As it makes its way (right to left) through gas clouds (green) it compresses them and heats them up. The red crescent just in front of the star is where this material is hottest.
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The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi (the bright blue spot in the center) is flying through space at incredible speeds. As it makes its way (right to left) through gas clouds (green) it compresses them and heats them up. The red crescent just in front of the star is where this material is hottest.
The Cat’s Paw Nebula comes clear in infrared. The reddish clouds are dust and gas that can collapse to form new stars, while the darker filaments are particularly dense regions that even infrared struggles to penetrate.
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The Cat’s Paw Nebula comes clear in infrared. The reddish clouds are dust and gas that can collapse to form new stars, while the darker filaments are particularly dense regions that even infrared struggles to penetrate.
The Spider Nebula, located about 10,000 light-years away on the fringe of the Milky Way. This composite image is made up of shots taken by Spitzer and 2MASS.
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The Spider Nebula, located about 10,000 light-years away on the fringe of the Milky Way. This composite image is made up of shots taken by Spitzer and 2MASS.
New features of the Sombrero Galaxy were revealed in infrared. There’s a small inner disk made up mostly of stars (blueish area), surrounded by a wider disk of dust and stars, highlighted in red.
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New features of the Sombrero Galaxy were revealed in infrared. There’s a small inner disk made up mostly of stars (blueish area), surrounded by a wider disk of dust and stars, highlighted in red.
Squint hard enough and these two star-forming regions may begin to look like versions of the Starship Enterprise. NASA released this image to commemorate Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016.
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Squint hard enough and these two star-forming regions may begin to look like versions of the Starship Enterprise. NASA released this image to commemorate Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016.
Normally obscured behind a thick cloud of dust, the spiral structure of galaxy IC 342 comes into clear focus in infrared light
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Normally obscured behind a thick cloud of dust, the spiral structure of galaxy IC 342 comes into clear focus in infrared light
The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula is creating brand new stars. The bright red spots inside the dusty cloud are protostars that were obscured from view before Spitzer turned its infrared eyes on them.
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The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula is creating brand new stars. The bright red spots inside the dusty cloud are protostars that were obscured from view before Spitzer turned its infrared eyes on them.
Young stars are formed in this turbulent neighborhood, near the massive and bright star Eta Carinae.
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Young stars are formed in this turbulent neighborhood, near the massive and bright star Eta Carinae.
The infrared view allows us to peek through the dusty North America Nebula and see the clusters of young stars beneath
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The infrared view allows us to peek through the dusty North America Nebula and see the clusters of young stars beneath
Spitzer captured a gigantic slow-motion collision between two galaxies. The larger one, named NGC 7752, is in the drawn-out process of swallowing the smaller galaxy, called NGC 7753.
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Spitzer captured a gigantic slow-motion collision between two galaxies. The larger one, named NGC 7752, is in the drawn-out process of swallowing the smaller galaxy, called NGC 7753.
The W33 star-forming region. The “yellowballs” are an intermediary stage in massive star formation, before they grow big enough to punch holes in the gas and dust around them, seen as green rings with red interiors.
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The W33 star-forming region. The “yellowballs” are an intermediary stage in massive star formation, before they grow big enough to punch holes in the gas and dust around them, seen as green rings with red interiors.
What looks like a fireball is actually the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way. This shot was stitched together from infrared data from Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.
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What looks like a fireball is actually the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way. This shot was stitched together from infrared data from Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.
Another shot of the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery that’s actively birthing new stars
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Another shot of the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery that’s actively birthing new stars
It’s not hard to see how the Exposed Cranium Nebula gets its name. It’s created by a dying star in the center that is quickly shedding material, blowing bubbles of ionized gas.
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It’s not hard to see how the Exposed Cranium Nebula gets its name. It’s created by a dying star in the center that is quickly shedding material, blowing bubbles of ionized gas.
The Dumbbell Nebula doesn’t look much like its namesake in infrared, but it still paints a striking picture
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The Dumbbell Nebula doesn’t look much like its namesake in infrared, but it still paints a striking picture
Taken in early 2004, this shot of the Tarantula Nebula was one of the first images Spitzer ever snapped
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Taken in early 2004, this shot of the Tarantula Nebula was one of the first images Spitzer ever snapped
One of the most eye-catching shots Spitzer ever took, showing the Helix Nebula, a cloud of dust two light-years wide, with the bright red center hiding a dying star shrouded in its own disk of debris
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One of the most eye-catching shots Spitzer ever took, showing the Helix Nebula, a cloud of dust two light-years wide, with the bright red center hiding a dying star shrouded in its own disk of debris
This star-studded shot shows the area around the Serpens constellation, where new stars are rapidly being formed. The red and orange ones towards the center of the image are the youngest, birthed in the dark cloud there.
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This star-studded shot shows the area around the Serpens constellation, where new stars are rapidly being formed. The red and orange ones towards the center of the image are the youngest, birthed in the dark cloud there.
Spitzer’s final image, snapped on January 25, 2020. It shows a section of the California Nebula, as well as giving a glimpse into how the telescope normally works – the cyan and red areas represent different wavelengths of light, which overlap to form the final image (grey center).
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Spitzer’s final image, snapped on January 25, 2020. It shows a section of the California Nebula, as well as giving a glimpse into how the telescope normally works – the cyan and red areas represent different wavelengths of light, which overlap to form the final image (grey center).
View gallery - 25 images

NASA finally retired the Spitzer Space Telescope on January 30 this year, after 16 years of scanning the skies in infrared. In that time the observatory has been responsible for some of the most stunning space photos ever taken, so to celebrate its life and achievements New Atlas is rounding up some of the absolute best infrared images snapped by Spitzer.

The part of the spectrum that the human eye can see is what we call “visible light,” and observatories like Hubble specialize in this area. But that’s far from the whole story – there’s an entire universe hiding in invisible light, such as infrared, and telescopes like Spitzer are designed to lift that veil.

Spitzer captures the cosmos in three different wavelengths of infrared light, with each one rendered in a different color. Blue areas represent wavelengths of 3.6 microns, green is 4.5 microns, and 8 microns is red. Together, that gives Spitzer’s images a striking cyan-and-magenta wash, which reveal celestial shapes and structures that we don’t normally get to see.

Taken in early 2004, this shot of the Tarantula Nebula was one of the first images Spitzer ever snapped
Taken in early 2004, this shot of the Tarantula Nebula was one of the first images Spitzer ever snapped

And the results are frequently breathtaking. One of the first targets was the Tarantula Nebula, and when the images were released in early 2004 they demonstrated just what Spitzer was capable of. The bright spot just left of center is the heart of a star-forming region, lit with the light of countless young stars. Just below that is a huge hole blasted in the gas by the intense radiation.

This star-studded shot shows the area around the Serpens constellation, where new stars are rapidly being formed. The red and orange ones towards the center of the image are the youngest, birthed in the dark cloud there.
This star-studded shot shows the area around the Serpens constellation, where new stars are rapidly being formed. The red and orange ones towards the center of the image are the youngest, birthed in the dark cloud there.

In visible light the Serpens Cloud Core is a swirling mess of gas and dust, but in this infrared image the clouds have parted, revealing a mesmerizing starscape. The bright smudge in the center is the nebula itself, while most of the smaller dots are located in the background. There’s a particularly dark streak just to the left that’s too thick for even infrared to get through.

Check out the rest of Spitzer’s greatest hits in our gallery.

View gallery - 25 images
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