Major new space telescope named after Princeton astronomer

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- NASA has named a major new space telescope, one of three companions to the Hubble Space Telescope, after a Princeton scientist who first advocated placing observatories above the Earth's atmosphere.

Lyman Spitzer

Lyman Spitzer

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility, which NASA had referred to as SIRTF, has now been named the Spitzer Space Telescope after the late astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, who served on the Princeton faculty for nearly 50 years and died in 1997.

"The Spitzer Space Telescope takes its place at the forefront of astronomy in the 21st century, just as its namesake, Dr. Lyman Spitzer Jr., was at the forefront of astronomy in the 20th," said NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Science Ed Weiler.

"Lyman Spitzer was the father of space telescopes," said Neta Bahcall, a Princeton professor of astrophysics who worked closely with Spitzer for many years. Spitzer proposed the idea of launching a telescope into space in 1946, long before the technical capacity existed, and worked for decades to convince political and scientific doubters of its worth.

"It is very appropriate that this massive undertaking, which has been so successful and so revolutionary for our understanding of the universe, is commemorated with the name of Lyman Spitzer," said Scott Tremaine, chair of astrophysical sciences at Princeton.

The Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth observatory to be launched under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Great Observatories program. The first of the series was the Hubble telescope, which was launched in 1990 and observes the visible and ultraviolet portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The second was the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, which was taken out of orbit in 2000. The third is the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Each type of radiation allows scientists to observe different aspects of the solar system, the galaxy and universe.

The infrared portion of the spectrum is particularly important for studying the birth of stars and galaxies, which are shrouded in dust clouds that block most visible light but not the infrared. It also will allow scientists to observe relatively cool objects, such as very small stars only slightly bigger than planets, as well as objects at the farthest reaches of time and space.

glowing, stellar nursery  

NASA's newly named Spitzer Space Telescope has captured dazzling images, including this glowing, stellar nursery, demonstrating the power of its infrared eyes to spy hidden objects. Resembling a flaming creature on the run, this image exposes the hidden in-terior of a dark and dusty cloud in the emission nebula IC 1396. Young stars previously obscured by dust can be seen here for the first time.


Spitzer was one of the world's leading scientists in studying the interstellar medium -- the gas and dust between stars -- and understanding how stars and galaxies formed from this material. The infrared telescope, which was launched in August after more than 20 years of planning, is expected to advance this line of research dramatically. Spitzer also was known as an outstanding teacher and as founder of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which seeks to harness nuclear fusion -- the source of energy within stars -- as an economical supply of energy on Earth.

A 50-year odyssey

The idea of putting telescopes in space and avoiding the blurring effects of the Earth's atmosphere had captured Spitzer's imagination for five decades. In a 1946 paper prepared for RAND Corp., a defense consulting company, Spitzer wrote, "While a more exhaustive analysis would alter some of the details of the present study, it would probably not change the chief conclusion -- that such a scientific tool, if practically feasible, could revolutionize astronomical techniques and open up completely new vistas of astronomical research."

His idea came closer to reality with the success of the space program 20 years later, but still was not universally accepted. Spitzer and John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study spent years crisscrossing the country and meeting with officials in Washington, D.C., to drum up support.

Bahcall said Spitzer's determination to see the space telescope project through was legendary in the astronomical community. In the early 1970s, Congress dropped funding for a space telescope from NASA's budget and Spitzer and Bahcall scheduled countless meetings with key representatives to save the project. Arriving for one appointment, they could not enter the Capitol building, which was roped off and surrounded by guards for the Nixon impeachment hearings.

"Lyman said, 'You and I have suits and briefcases -- let's keep on talking and walking and try to ignore the policemen with guns,'" recalled Bahcall. As they passed the crowds and approached the ropes, Bahcall looked for guidance from Spitzer, who did nothing but nod as though engrossed in conversation. "I remember thinking, 'I don't know if they are going to shoot us or not,'" said Bahcall. "Then a policeman rushed up -- and pulled the ropes aside for us to go through."

"So you can see he was a person who had amazing resourcefulness in any endeavor he undertook," said Bahcall.

After Hubble was launched, Spitzer participated in brainstorming ways to repair a flaw in the telescope's mirror, said Neta Bahcall. On the day of the repair mission, the Princeton astrophysics department arranged for the NASA television channel to be shown in Peyton Hall. "He and Doreen, his wife, would come and sit for the whole day and watch with the thrill of a little kid in a toy store," Neta Bahcall said.

Spitzer earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1938 and taught at Yale University before performing wartime service at Columbia University. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1947 as chair of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. He founded the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in 1951 and served as its director until 1967. He received the 1979 National Medal of Science in addition to numerous other major awards.

The first images from the Spitzer Space Telescope were released Dec. 18. The infrared space telescope project is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.


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