Since the dawn of humankind, we have looked to the stars and wondered what was out there — and what it could tell us about where we came from.

That sense of wonder and deep desire for answers led us to come together, and to build culture and religion as a way to make sense of the little we could see with our bare eyes.

Even with the invention of the telescope we were limited by our biology in what we could see — our eyes are calibrated just fine to detect dangers and opportunities on Earth, but miss a lot of what goes in the deepest reaches of space.

That changed with the creation of space telescopes, which use infrared cameras to observe light in a spectrum otherwise invisible to us. One of those telescopes ended its mission last month after more than 16 years of capturing some of the most breathtaking and important images of the unending universe.

The Spitzer space telescope was launched on Aug. 25, 2003, for what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half year mission, part of the same program as the well-known Hubble telescope. The size of a family sedan, it was placed in Earth’s orbit around the sun, though 158 million miles behind so the heat from our planet didn’t interfere with its instruments.

The pictures it sent back were unprecedented. The Spitzer mapped high-speed winds on Jupiter and found Saturn’s largest ring, which is covered in space dust impenetrable to earlier instruments. It found a giant star about 370 light-years away.

The Spitzer found the rocky, cigar-shaped Oumuamua, the first interstellar object seen by humans. It recorded the birth of new stars and, for the first time, the atmosphere around planets outside our solar system.

In perhaps its most important discovery, Spitzer in 2017 identified the Trappist-1 system — a large star orbited by seven Earth-like planets, some of which may hold liquid water and thus may be habitable.

On Jan. 30, NASA sent one last signal to the Spitzer, and a few minutes later it fell into hibernation.

This is not the last word on its legacy, however. The archive of all the information it has sent back over the years will be available to anyone who wants it, and it will inform research for decades.

And next year, NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will build on Spitzer’s work, looking further into the universe to gather more information about how it all started.

Thanks to NASA and programs like Spitzer, we can answer a lot of questions about the universe that confounded humans for millennia.

But the more we know, the more complex the mysteries become. We’ll keep trying to solve them, though — it is deeply within us to do so.


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