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New orbiter takes out-of-sight pictures

Spitzer's view of the Elephant's Trunk Nebula, a gas cloud about 2,450 light-years away.
Spitzer's view of the Elephant's Trunk Nebula, a gas cloud about 2,450 light-years away.

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Animation of NASA's infrared space telescope (December 18)
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Space Infrared Telescope Facility
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

(CNN) -- NASA unveiled stunning first pictures from a powerful new infrared space telescope on Thursday, and announced a new name for the spacecraft, one of the agency's four so-called Great Observatories.

The images from the orbiter, likened to an infrared version of the Hubble Space Telescope, include a spiral galaxy, a star-birth region and a rocky planet-forming disk around a distant star.

Launched earlier this year, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, or SIRTF, was renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope, after astronomer Lyman Spitzer, who first proposed the idea of Earth-orbiting telescopes in the 1940s.

"NASA's newest Great Observatory is open for business, and it is beginning to take its place at the forefront of science," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator, in a statement.

As an infrared telescope, the Spitzer detects infrared radiation, or heat, rather than optical light. Consequently, it can observe objects in deep space that have never been seen before because they are obscured by gas or dust in the visible light range.

The telescope, launched in August, is the fourth and final telescope in NASA's Great Observatories series. The others are the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

The telescopes were designed to explore the universe from above Earth's atmosphere using a range of instruments.

"Like Hubble, Compton and Chandra, the new Spitzer Space Telescope will soon be making major discoveries, and, as these first images show, should excite the public with views of the cosmos like we've never had before," Weiler said.

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