US Space Force announces ambitious Spitzer telescope 'resurrection' mission

It would be 'the most complex robotic mission ever performed by humanity.'
Chris Young
An artist's impression of of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
An artist's impression of of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

NASA / JPL-Caltech 

The U.S. Space Force has announced an ambitious plan to bring a powerful NASA telescope out of retirement.

An initial study aims to bring the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was retired in 2020 after 17 years of infrared light observations, back to life.

The Space Force awarded startup Rhea Space Activity $250,000 to explore the possibility via a project dubbed the Spitzer Resurrector Mission.

"This would be the most complex robotic mission ever performed by humanity," astrophysicist Shawn Usman, Rhea's CEO, explained in a press statement.

The 'Spitzer Resurrector Mission'

Spitzer performed pioneering infrared light observations from deep space after it was first launched on August 25, 2003. The telescope utilized a liquid helium cooling system. Once the satellite's supply of liquid helium was exhausted, it could no longer cool its instruments, and the mission was retired.

It could soon come back from the dead, though.

Spitzer is currently located two astronomical units (the distance from the Sun to Earth) away. As such, it would be an incredibly complex mission, surpassing the five space shuttle missions that serviced the Hubble Space Telescope between 1993 and 2009.

Given the massive cost of space missions, it's understandable that NASA aims to squeeze as much life as possible from its satellites. In fact, the space agency is also considering a mission that would extend the life of Hubble, which has been active for more than 30 years.

The new early-stage study proposes a "Spitzer Resurrector" mission to launch in 2026. Rhea Space Activity will develop technology that will allow the mission's spacecraft to "restart Spitzer, confirm that it has been restored to its original performance capabilities, and ... remain nearby to act as a high-rate data relay to Earth, thus restoring Spitzer to its full efficiency," the company explained in its statement.

Bringing a James Webb predecessor back to life

Surprisingly, Rhea has yet to launch a mission to space. It does have several in the works, though, including the Lunint (Lunar Intelligence) mission, which could launch next year.

It will also form a partnership with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Blue Sun Enterprises, and Lockheed Martin for the Spitzer mission.

NASA's historic James Webb Space Telescope mission launched in December 2021 also uses infrared instruments to peer into deep space. However, Spitzer made its observations in different wavelengths, and its location in space also provides a unique vantage point.

While it's by no means a given that a startup will be able to pull off "the most complex robotic mission" ever, the new proposal potentially opens the door to a new era of deep space servicing missions that would allow scientific instruments to live on much longer than previously thought possible.

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