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The daring plan to resurrect a dead NASA telescope

....but why is the Space Force interested in Spitzer?

Is the Space Force reviving a beloved NASA telescope that was decommissioned in 2020? And why would the Space Force even be interested in a scientific observatory?

Let’s dive into this incredibly interesting and frankly puzzling story about the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The problem with Spitzer

A few months ago, a daring plan came to light to revive a beloved observatory in deep space — the Spitzer Space Telescope. Here’s the thing: It feels huge enough for NASA and SpaceX to be exploring a mission to boost and service Hubble, which is in Earth’s atmosphere. The Spitzer Space Telescope is currently around 2 AU, or 186 million miles from Earth. Keep in mind that JWST is just 1 million miles away.

Credit: E

Spitzer launched in 2003 and is an infrared-optimized observatory, a predecessor to JWST. It had a long operational history — its 2.5 year mission stretched to 17+ years, and it was still capable of doing good science when it was decommissioned. 

Credit: STScI

JWST’s mirror is much larger than Spitzer’s, but Spitzer can see longer infrared wavelengths. Over the course of its life, Spitzer found a new ring of Saturn, detected additional exoplanets in the Trappist-1 system, and composed this stunning 360 degree panorama of the Milky Way.

The cool thing about Spitzer also became the big problem with it: it orbits the sun in an Earth-trailing orbit, which basically means it follows the Earth around the sun. This ensures its view of the cosmos isn’t limited by our planet’s atmosphere. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But because it moves slower than our planet, it gets further from us every year. As of 2020, when the spacecraft was decommissioned, it was about 158 million miles or 254 million km from Earth. Spitzer was never designed to operate for that long, which meant in order to communicate with Earth, it had to turn its solar panels away from the sun and operate on batteries to align its antenna with Earth. As the distance from Earth got larger, so did the amount of time it had to be in that position in order to send and receive data — while the high-gain antenna was capable of a 2.2Mbit/s data rate at the beginning, it was significantly slower by the end of the mission. Basically it was just getting harder and harder to operate.

Because of these, and other challenges, NASA retired Spitzer to be able to funnel that money towards JWST. The spacecraft was put in safe mode. That instructed it to turn off its instruments and systems in order to preserve whatever power and other resources it had left. The spacecraft’s solar panels were oriented towards the sun, which means Spitzer has power and is technically operational even if it’s not currently in communication with Earth or doing any science. 

Credit: Spitzer Space Telescope Handbook

The spacecraft was officially decommissioned in 2020. Because of the distance to Spitzer and its current orientation, we can’t communicate with the spacecraft. However, its low-gain antenna — it has two of them — are omnidirectional and once the spacecraft entered safe mode, they have been sending a very weak carrier signal to Earth. The idea is in about 2053, when the Earth catches up with Spitzer, we may be able to take it out of safe mode using these low-gain antenna, but that would require special hardware on the ground because the signal is so weak.

Here comes Spitzer Resurrector

But it’s possible we may be talking to Spitzer before that. In May 2023, the U.S. Space Force, which is a branch of the U.S. military, announced that they were ordering an early-stage study into what’s called the “Spitzer Resurrector” mission — contracting with a company called Rhea Space Activity for around $250,000 to explore the possibility of sending a robotic mission to service Spitzer and bring it back online. If it’s deemed feasible, the mission would launch in 2026

Credit: Rhea Space Systems

Spitzer Resurrector would travel to the observatory, restore it to operational status, and then remain there to act as a relay to send signals from the spacecraft back to Earth.

But why is the Space Force interested in Spitzer?

There are so many questions here. While we haven’t gotten an update since that original announcement, there was a brief mention in the House appropriations bill for the Defense Department for 2024 that acknowledged that the Space Force was still pursuing this mission and encouraged the Secretary of the Air Force to do something similar — so we know it’s still possibly happening. I did check in with the Space Force to see if there were any updates on this, and didn’t receive a response — but if I do after this video is published, I’ll update this post.

I have quite a few questions about HOW this might happen, which it’s hard to speculate about right now, but also WHY. Why is the Space Force interested in Spitzer, a scientific infrared observatory, and who would operate it? This is a Space Force mission, not a NASA mission. If they brought back Spitzer, would NASA continue to operate it — considering right now, NASA is basically cancelling the Chandra X-Ray telescope to be able to fund future observatories, it doesn’t seem realistic that they’d want to bring an old observatory back online that they cancelled partly due to funding issues. 

Rho Ophiuchi from the Spitzer Space Telescope, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s also worth mentioning that partners on this mission are Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Blue Sun Enterprises, and Lockheed Martin — it looks like NASA isn’t involved at all.

And, as I mentioned, why is the Space Force interested in Spitzer? There’s some vague reference in the initial press release that they’re interested in its scientific capabilities, but generally the Space Force is only interested in science as it pertains to military strategy and tech — meaning there would have to be a good reason to do this.

Asteroid Eros from the Spitzer Space Telescope, credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The release does also mention that the Space Force is interested in Spitzer because of its ability to detect near-Earth hazards — which makes sense. It’s a program that the incredibly sensitive infrared observatory helped invent. Infrared, or thermal, observations of asteroids are actually the most valuable in terms of figuring out the size and albedo, which is the light they reflect. It’s how we tell what asteroids are made of. 

But there’s also this: one goal of the Space Force is what it calls “domain awareness,” which is being aware of what human activity is going on in space, and they’ve shown a specific interest in cislunar space (the space between the Earth and the moon). Spitzer is in a unique position to observe and monitor this region. It is possible they’d use Spitzer to keep an eye on what’s going on. 

W5 from the Spitzer Space Telescope, credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s important to note that this program is part of SpaceWERX, which is the Space Force’s innovation arm, and specifically, this mission is part of its Orbital Prime program. The aim is to develop the market for ISAM, or On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing. That means everything from on-orbit satellite servicing to assembling space stations in orbit to alleviating some of the space debris problem.

This would be a great test and demonstration of these on-orbit servicing capabilities. It’s quite possible there’s no long term goal for the Space Force except figuring out how to do this kind of robotic mission so far from Earth, when frankly, the stakes are pretty low. If it doesn’t work, if the Spitzer Resurrector breaks the telescope, I mean it was already decommissioned so there’s no huge harm done. (Though I personally, along with the science community, would be heartbroken).

In the end, the idea of bringing back a distant telescope could be very cool, and I do hope it happens.