Spitzer Telescope Spots Cosmic Destruction

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Portions of outer space are filled with gas clouds and dust that obstruct our view. Infrared astronomy, which analyzes wavelengths of light that pass through such obstructions pulls back the veil and allows us to view forms that are invisible to the naked eye.

It's given us a clearer look at things like star formations, the centers of galaxies and extrasolar planets (translation: planets that exist outside our own solar system). Back in 2003, NASA launched the Spitzer Space Telescope as the last mission of the Great Observatories Program, which encompassed a series of observatories—such as the Hubble Telescope—that expanded our ability to view outer space.

In order for Spitzer to function, coolant was used to chill the telescope to near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit) so that the highly sensitive instruments could properly read infrared signals emitted from objects in space. However, on May 15, 2009, Spitzer ran out of coolant and began to warm up. (It was reported on August 5 that it is operating at a temperature of -406 degrees Fahrenheit.) However, this does not mean that the telescope is inoperable: it still has two infrared detectors that can function at warmer temperatures. Spitzer officially began its "warm" mission on July 29, 2009 and will continue collecting data to help us understand the universe.

"We're thrilled to see Spitzer up and running again, and continuing to provide such spectacular images," says astronomer Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Indeed—on August 10, Spitzer provided evidence of a celestial collision of epic proportions. Astronomers believe that a few thousand years ago, two rocky forms—one about the size of Earth's moon, the other about the size of planet Mercury—were involved in a high-speed collision. (In relation to each other, they were traveling at a rate of 22,400 miles per hour.) This ultimately resulted in the smaller of the two objects being totally destroyed. Spitzer was able to detect floating bits of vaporized rock and frozen lava. Where most collisions are slow and stately (think about Titanic striking that iceberg), this event was a high-octane display of fire and destruction—a truly unusual event.

View a video of an artist's imagining of the event. (This is for persons with high speed internet connections—the total file size is over 25 MB.)

About Jesse Rhodes

Jesse Rhodes is an editorial assistant for Smithsonian magazine. Before he became an editorial assistant, Jesse worked at the Library of Congress Publishing Office, where he was a contributor to the Library of Congress World War II Companion.

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