02May2013

Cool Herschel Space Telescope Closes Its Eyes

“Cool Andromeda” Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, O. Krause, HSC, H. Linz

The time has finally come for the Herschel Observatory. The European space telescope just reached the end of its observational life after exhausting its liquid coolant supply. While researchers with ESA and designers with NASA knew this would eventually happen, it still didn’t stop the intrepid telescope from gathering four years of data by unlocking the Universe’s “coolest” secrets through its study of the frigid nature of galaxy, star and planet formations. 

“Herschel gave us the opportunity to peer into the dark and cold regions of the universe that are invisible to other telescopes,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. “This successful mission demonstrates how NASA and ESA can work together to tackle unsolved mysteries in astronomy.”

How can we be sure that Herschel no longer operates? During the spacecraft’s routine daily communications session with its ground station in Western Australia, the instrumentation revealed a marked rise in temperature, signaling the end of its useful life. However, don’t mourn for Herschel. Its detectors observed a myriad of celestial objects with infrared wavelengths as long as 625 micrometers – a feat which exceeds a thousand times longer than what we can perceive with our eyes.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Obse...

Artist’s impression of the Herschel Space Observatory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the news release, heat interferes with these devices, so they were chilled to temperatures as low as 2 kelvins (minus 271 degrees Celsius, or 456 Fahrenheit) using liquid helium. The detectors also were kept cold by the spacecraft’s orbit, which is around a stable point called the second Lagrange point about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. From here, the Herschel Space Telescope was able to achieve an incredible view of the Universe.

“Herschel has improved our understanding of how new stars and planets form, but has also raised many new questions,” said Paul Goldsmith, NASA Herschel project scientist at JPL. “Astronomers will be following up on Herschel’s discoveries with ground-based and future space-based observatories for years to come.”

Even though Herschel won’t be observing any more, that doesn’t mean the discoveries will stop. Astronomers will continue to study the data returned by the mission. Much of this information is already public record and can be accessed through NASA’s Herschel Science Center. Before the end of 2013, the final data sets will also become public.

“Our goal is to help the U.S. community exploit the nuggets of gold that lie in that data archive,” said Phil Appleton, project scientist at the science center.

Long live the results of one of the coolest telescopes to grace space!

Original Story Source: JPL News Release. Submitted by Tammy Plotner for “Dave Reneke’s World of Space and Astronomy News”.

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