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Website of the Week—Spitzer Space Telescope


Construction work on the international space station resumed this week for the first time since the Space Shuttle Columbia's fatal re-entry accident in 2003. Our Website of the Week puts us on a trajectory that, like the orbiting space station, is simply out of this world.

In our flight around the Internet, we land today at the cyber home of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Launched in 2003, the telescope is the final phase of NASA's Great Observatories Program, an initative dedicated to observing the universe in four different kinds of light.

Spitzer's virtual home explores the magic and mystery of the universe in infrared.

Spitzer education and outreach director Michelle Thaller says infrared is invisible light, which can be detected as heat, or thermal radiation. "When you go to our website you are going to see these beautiful pictures of galaxies and stars and gorgeous big clouds in space, but what you have to keep remembering is that that is not visible light that you are looking at. Your eye would never see that image. That's an image that we have actually translated into wavelengths that you can see. It is a heat image that was invisible, and we use false color to actually show you what is out there."

Thaller says infrared technology offers a chance to explore our cosmic roots and to observe how galaxies, stars and planets are born and develop. "We've taken pictures of stars that are just forming, baby stars that are still inside big clouds of dust that were invisible to us before," she says, "but we can actually see their heat coming out of the dust cloud. Amazing stuff! And we are also seeing all the way to the most distant galaxies in the universe. Some of the galaxies we are actually seeing in the infrared are so distant that you wouldn't even be able to detect them in visible light. They are too faint and too far away. Some of them are literally almost 13 billion light years away."

"Cool Cosmos" is a favorite page on the website. It's here, Thaller says, that teachers, museum-goers and students get a feel for what infrared light is all about. The concept is explained online with a trip to a more terrestrial setting: the Zoo! "We took pictures of reptiles which are cold-blooded, so they appear much cooler than a warm person holding them. We took pictures of sea lions, which are warm-blooded animals, but they keep their heat in so well that you can barely see them with a heat-seeking camera."

Another popular destination at www.spitzer.caltech.edu is "Ask an Astronomer." Thaller says scientists from California Institute of Technology appear in video clips to provide answers to frequently asked questions. "They are wonderful three-minute chunks that a teacher could even use in a lesson," she says. Thaller says the clips address questions such as "Why doesn't the moon fall down towards the earth?" or "What exactly is a star, why does it live and die?" The most recent clip is on black holes Thaller says, adding, "I know everybody loves black holes."

Thaller says while the Spitzer Space Telescope is expected to be retired by 2008, there is no end in sight for its cyber portal http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu.

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