Illustration of the Spitzer Space Telescope

Book review: ‘More Things in the Heavens’ by Michael Werner and Peter Eisenhardt

Image credit: NASA/JPL

How infrared astronomy is expanding our view of the universe.

Compared with today’s enormous terrestrial space observatories, the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) is a tiny thing. Its mirror, as ‘More Things in the Heavens’ (Princeton University Press, £27, ISBN 9780691175546) tells us, is no bigger than a hula-hoop. Yet what it necessarily lacks in size – SST is, after all, a space telescope – it more than compensates for in its contribution to our understanding of the Universe.

Launched in 2003, it was only supposed to be operational for a few years until the coolant ran out. With the survival of a couple of short-wave modules of the IRAC (InfraRed Array Camera), the mission entered a new phase – the Spitzer Warm Mission – and the worthy telescope is still going strong, giving us infrared images of the vast expanses of space, whilst also helping us to address some of the most fundamental questions that we have as a species (e.g. Where did we come from? How did the Universe evolve? Are we alone?).

Written by Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory veterans Michael Werner and Peter Eisenhardt, ‘More Things in the Heavens’ is an unashamed celebration of one of the great scientific projects of the early 21st century. While both men have been working on the project since the 1980s, it wasn’t until 25 August 2003 that the mission took flight and Spitzer (named after the godfather of space telescopes, astronomer Lyman Spitzer) began to bring the infrared universe into focus as never before.

The significance is that while we’ve been studying the heavens for thousands of years, until recently much of the cosmos has been invisible to the human eye. It is with the intention of making Spitzer’s story intelligible to the ‘popular science’ reader that Werner and Eisenhardt present their insights into how the telescope continues to carry out cutting-edge infrared astronomy.

It’s a spell-binding tale. We can now see, say the authors, celestial bodies that are too cold or distant to be seen by visible spectrum light. We can now conduct deep surveys of galaxies as they appeared at the dawn of time. We can now see through cosmic clouds that obscure the life cycles of planets, stars and galaxies. As a result of Spitzer’s contribution to space science, we are now closer to understanding the processes that gave birth to the earliest stars and we are even getting a better steer on whether there are conditions out there favourable to the evolution of life beyond the Solar System.

Quite apart from being the final technical court of appeal on all things Spitzer, ‘More Things in the Heavens’ is a labour of love by two men who committed their lives to transforming a dream into reality, to bringing us a deeper understanding of the Universe with a mirror no bigger than the one in most bathrooms.

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