“Alien Planet Spy” –Spitzer Infrared Space Observatory Re-Engineered for New Mission

Now approaching its 10th anniversary, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has evolved into a premier observatory for an endeavor not envisioned in its original design: the study of worlds around other stars, called exoplanets. While the engineers and scientists who built Spitzer did not have this goal in mind, their work made this unexpected capability possible. Thanks to the extraordinary stability of its design and a series of subsequent engineering reworks, the space telescope now has observational powers far beyond its original limits and expectations.

“When Spitzer launched back in 2003, the idea that we would use it to study exoplanets was so crazy that no one considered it,” said Sean Carey of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “But now the exoplanet science work has become a cornerstone of what we do with the telescope.”

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AUSTIN, Texas — When a team of researchers sifted through old data from the Hubble Space Telescope and discovered two hidden alien planets that had gone unnoticed for 13 years, they inadvertently found a new way to seek out alien worlds.

Now, astronomers are expanding their search by applying the data-mining technique to 350 other stars that were observed in 1998 by a Hubble telescope instrument called the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS).

“We’re only going to look at archive data — only what there is in the NICMOS data,” said Remi Soummer, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. Soummer was a member of the research team that found visual evidence in the old Hubble data of the alien planets around the star HR 8799.

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