Spitzer Documentation & Tools
Spitzer Telescope Handbook


2.2            Spacecraft Development

The development of the flight system, apart from the instruments, was done by contractors Ball and Lockheed following a feasibility study of the warm launch architecture done at JPL.†† The instrument designs were done by the Principal Investigators working with their suppliers as described above.† The Spitzer design is described in detail by R. Gehrz et al. (2007, Rev. Sci. Inst., 78, 1302); the design and implementation incorporates a number of innovations which may be summarized as follows:

2.2.1       A Prime Directive

The Spitzer telescope and its three science instruments are cooled to their ultimate operating temperatures by liquid helium cryogen, which itself achieves a temperature of about 1.2 K under the pumping action of the vacuum of space.† The cooling is necessary to minimize the intrinsic infrared radiation of the telescope structure and to reach the optimum operating point for the detectors in the instruments.† Approximately 350 liters of helium were loaded into the Spitzer cryogen tank (Figure 2.3) prior to launch, and when the last helium boiled away in May 2009, the primary Spitzer mission ended. Thus the prime directive for the design of the Spitzer mission was to minimize the unnecessary, or parasitic, heat reaching the helium tank.† This dictated both the choice of Spitzerís unusual orbit and the unusual architecture of Spitzerís cryogenic/thermal system.

2.2.2       A Kinder, Gentler Orbit

All previous space observatories had used a low Earth orbit (e.g., IRAS and the Hubble Space Telescope) or a high Earth orbit with a period of one-to-two days (e.g., ISO and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory).† Spitzer breaks this pattern by utilizing an Earth-trailing heliocentric, or solar orbit with semi-major axis very slightly larger than that of the Earthís orbit.† As seen from Earth, Spitzer recedes at about 0.1 AU per year and reached a distance of 0.62 AU in five years.† This orbit satisfies the Prime Directive in several ways.† First, there is great benefit in getting away from the heat of the Earth.† Second, the orbit allows radiative cooling into the refrigerator of deep space to play a large part in cooling Spitzer, and in keeping it cool. Third, because there are no eclipses, and the Earth and Moon are far away, the orbit permits excellent sky viewing and observing efficiency.

The orbit has one major disadvantage. As Spitzer moves away from the Earth, its radio signals become gradually weaker due to the increasing distance. The data is stored on board and radioed back to Earth through the dishes of the Deep Space Network (DSN). The nominal downlink strategy of one or two ~45 minute passes per day and a downlink data rate of 2.2 Mb/s worked for the cryogenic mission, although the largest DSN dishes (70 meters) were required for the final years of the mission. During the warm mission Spitzer continues to drift further from the Earth, although this issue is partly mitigated by the generally reduced data collection rate in this phase.

2.2.3       Flight System Architecture

Spitzerís novel cryogenic architecture and the overall configuration of the flight system is shown in Figure 2.3. The spacecraft and solar panel were provided by Lockheed Martin. The telescope, instruments, cryostat, and associated shields and shells make up the Cryogenic Telescope Assembly (CTA), built by Ball Aerospace.



Figure 2.3: The outer shell forms the boundary of the CTA, which incorporates the telescope, the cryostat, the helium tank, and the three instruments.† Principal Investigator-led teams provided the instruments, while Ball Aerospace provided the remainder of the CTA.† Lockheed-Martin provided the solar panel and the spacecraft bus.† The observatory is approximately 4.5m tall and 2.1m in diameter; the mass at launch was 861kg.† The dust cover atop the CTA was jettisoned 5 days after launch.† (Image courtesy of Ball Aerospace).


The novel features of the Spitzer cryo-thermal design and the benefits it bestows are illustrated in Figure 2.4, which compares the architecture of Spitzer as it now flies with an earlier design which resembles that of the predecessor ISO and IRAS missions.† ISO and IRAS packaged the telescope inside the cryostat so that it was in close conductive contact with the liquid helium and thus cold at launch. Spitzer employs a novel design in which the greater part of the CTA was launched while at room temperature; only the science instrument cold assemblies and the superfluid helium vessel were cold within the vacuum cryostat shell. As shown in Figure 2.4, this allowed a much smaller vacuum pressure vessel and a smaller observatory mass than achieved by the cold launch architecture while maintaining telescope size and lifetime.


Figure 2.4.† The warm launch architecture of Spitzer as it now flies [right] is compared with an earlier cold launch concept similar to the predecessor IRAS and ISO missions.† As discussed in the text, the warm launch concept achieves the same mission lifetime and primary mirror size as the cold launch approach, but at a fraction of the cost.† To be fair, some of the reduction in cost and mass was achieved by streamlining Spitzerís measurement capabilities, but the warm launch concept retains the core functionality required for the execution of Spitzerís most important programs.


For the longest wavelengths Spitzer requires the telescope be at ~5.5K and the deep space refrigerator got us there after launch. The principles of this on-orbit cooling are deceptively simple. In the solar orbit, the spacecraft can be oriented so that the sun always falls on the solar panel, which shades the telescope outer shell. A carefully designed and fabricated system of reflective shells and shields assures that little of the solar heat reaches the outer shell to diffuse inward to heat the telescope.† A similar system deflects heat from the spacecraft bus, which operates near room temperature. With no heat input, the telescope should cool very rapidly by radiating its heat to space Ė the anti-solar side of the outer shell is painted black to facilitate this.† Prior to launch it was predicted that the telescope would achieve a temperature below ~50K through this radiative cooling, and that the evaporating helium gas, which is at a temperature of only ~1.2K, would cool the telescope to its operating temperature of ~5.5K and keep it there.


The system worked just as predicted, if not better.† The initial (radiative plus gas-assisted) cooldown to ~5.5 K took about 40 days.† The outermost CTA shell equilibrated at an operating temperature of 34 to 34.5 K solely by radiative cooling, so that there is very little parasitic heat leaking inwards to the helium tank.† It took only about one ounce of helium per day to keep Spitzer cold.† Not coincidentally, this is about the same rate at which the instruments boiled away the liquid helium by dissipating power into the helium bath.† So the system was both in equilibrium and in balance thermally.

2.2.4       The Warm Spitzer mission

In May 2009, the last of Spitzer's helium boiled away. The cryogenic portion of the CTA started to warm up, but the passively-cooled outer shell has stayed at a temperature near 35K. The telescope is cooler because it can radiate through the aperture at the top of the outer shell, and it has now equilibrated at 27.5 K. It was anticipated that the two shortest wavelength channels (channels 1 and 2) of the IRAC instrument at 3.6 and 4.5 microns would operate with full efficiency and sensitivity under these conditions, (although Spitzer's other channels will be inoperative), and plans were in place to continue to operate in what is now known as the Spitzer Warm Mission. This phase of the project is now well underway; the sensitivity and image quality are virtually unchanged from the cryogenic mission. Spitzer is being operated as a facility for the entire astronomical community, with all of the observing time available to the user community through the usual peer-review process. The warm mission is currently (as of March 2013) approved through the end of September 2014 (Cycle-10). We will return to the NASA Senior Review in 2014 with a proposal to extend operations through 2016.

2.2.5       The Rest of the Story

Additional innovations as well as careful design, fabrication, and testing characterize the rest of the Spitzer spacecraft.† Key components, described in detail in R. Gehrz et al. (2007, Rev. Sci. Inst., 78, 1302), include:


1. An all-Beryllium telescope, with an 85 cm primary mirror.† Beryllium was selected because of its high strength-to-weight ratio and reproducible cryogenic behavior.† The secondary mirror of the telescope can be moved in an axial direction to focus the telescope on-orbit.† Pre-launch test and analysis determined the proper setting of the secondary.† Only a small adjustment (less than .01 mm) in the position of the secondary was made after on-orbit cooldown to bring the telescope into proper focus.† The telescope achieves diffraction-limited performance at all wavelengths longward of 5.5 microns across its entire focal plane.† Spitzer achieves an image size of ~2 arcseconds at its shortest operating wavelengths.


2.† An excellent pointing and control system. †This system is built around a high performance autonomous star-tracker Ė which points the telescope to the desired star-field by using a pattern recognition algorithm based on an internal star catalog.† In addition, the system includes gyroscopes, reaction wheels to turn the spacecraft, and a visible light sensor in the telescope focal plane to establish and track the line of sight of the cold telescope relative to that of the warm star tracker.† The overall performance is excellent; Spitzer can be pointed to an accuracy of less than one-half arcsecond and achieves short-term stability much less than 0.1 arcseconds.


3.† A robust spacecraft.† The spacecraft bus shown in Figure 2.3 provides the Spitzer telescope and instruments with a robust and reliable support system.† The spacecraft performs a variety of functions including pointing Spitzer; managing execution of the science program by clocking through a series of pre-loaded commands; storing, compressing and telemetering the science data to Earth; and monitoring its own health as well as that of the telescope and instruments.† The Spitzer spacecraft resembles other unsung heroes in that when it operates smoothly (which it does essentially 100% of the time) we are unaware of its existence.† Even after more than five years on orbit, the spacecraft remains fully redundant.† The Spitzer spacecraft includes one expendable substance, high-pressure nitrogen gas, used to spin down the reaction wheel assemblies when they start to accumulate too much angular momentum.† Enough nitrogen remains to see Spitzer safely through the warm mission with considerable margin.†


4.† Detector Arrays.† The properties and power of Spitzerís detector arrays are well known to users of the observatory, and, by implication, to anyone who has seen some of Spitzerís spectacular images or spectra.† The arrays and their applications in the Spitzer instruments are discussed in detail in subsequent sections of this documentation.† Here we merely emphasize that Spitzerís great scientific power follows directly from the size and quality of the arrays used at all wavelengths and throughout the focal plane Ė both for imaging and spectroscopy.† It is here that Spitzer achieves its gain over previous cryogenic observatories:† IRAS flew single detectors, and ISOís few small arrays covered only a small fraction of its entire wavelength range.† Spitzer as a cryogenic observatory in space achieves a thousand-fold increase in sensitivity at wavelengths beyond 3 microns over what can be done from within the atmosphere.† When this increase in sensitivity is exploited by arrays with tens of thousands of pixels, the scientific grasp and the gain over alternative facilities are measured in factors of millions.