Chandra also probes objects with extreme gravitational or magnetic fields, like neutron stars and black holes. Some scientists expect Chandra to be crucial in the study of little-understood dark matter and dark energy, mysterious forces that account for most of the material in the universe. But the telescope has also revealed new things about more familiar sights: Saturn’s rings, it turns out, glitter with X-rays.
Sometimes astronomers produce images using data from all three telescopes. In 2009, the trio generated a stunning composite view of the Milky Way’s core. Hubble showed countless stars, Spitzer captured radiant dust clouds and Chandra tracked X-ray emissions from material near a black hole.
Telescopes can’t last forever. Spitzer ran out of coolant last year, though some parts are still cold enough to function, and the telescope has begun to drift away from Earth. “It’s going to be sad to see it go,” says Fazio. “It’s been a major part of my life for the past 25 years. But we’re still mining the data and finding new stuff.” In 2015, the Webb, a new infrared telescope with the capacity to collect more than 58 times as much light as Spitzer, is scheduled to pick up where Spitzer leaves off.
Chandra is still functioning well, and scientists expect the instrument to soldier on for at least another decade. Eventually, perhaps a century from now, the worn-out telescope will likely slip too close to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. But we have many more illuminating images to look forward to before then.
Abigail Tucker is Smithsonian’s staff writer.