With a mirror measuring 3.5m in diameter, the Herschel Space Observatory is the largest telescope ever to be flown into space.
Launched by the European Space Agency in May 2009, it is currently orbiting the Sun at a position 1.5 million km away from Earth. By operating in the infrared region of the spectrum, the telescope is able to 'see through' gas and dust clouds which can block visible light. Scientists using the telescope hope that this will tell them more about the formation of stars and galaxies.
Image: An artist's impression of the Herschel spacecraft (credit: ESA)
Herschel is the largest telescope ever launched into space.
Patrick Moore's guest explains.
Sir Patrick Moore's guest demonstrates how astronomers use infrared light in spacecraft such as the Herschel Space Observatory and in Earth-based telescopes such as UKIRT.
Patrick Moore's guest explains aspects of Herschel's mission.
Sir Patrick Moore and his guests discuss the aims of the Herschel Space Observatory mission. The instrument is able to 'see through' dust clouds by collecting infrared light.
Dr Chris Lintott reports on the spacecraft's launch.
The Sky at Night's Dr Chris Lintott reports on the launch of the Herschel and Planck satellites from the European Space Agency's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
The Herschel Space Observatory was a space observatory built and operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). It was active from 2009 to 2013, and was the largest infrared telescope ever launched, carrying a single 3.5-metre (11.5 ft) mirror and instruments sensitive to the far infrared and submillimetre wavebands (55–672 µm). Herschel was the fourth cornerstone mission in the ESA science programme, along with Rosetta, Planck, and Gaia. The United States, through NASA, participated in the programme.
The observatory was carried into orbit in May 2009, reaching the second Lagrangian point (L2) of the Earth–Sun system, 1,500,000 kilometres (930,000 mi) from Earth, about two months later. Herschel is named after Sir William Herschel, the discoverer of the infrared spectrum and planet Uranus, and his sister and collaborator Caroline Herschel.
The observatory was capable of seeing the coldest and dustiest objects in space; for example, cool cocoons where stars form and dusty galaxies just starting to bulk up with new stars. The observatory sifted through star-forming clouds—the "slow cookers" of star ingredients—to trace the path by which potentially life-forming molecules, such as water, form.
The telescope's lifespan was governed by the amount of coolant available for its instruments; when that coolant ran out, the instruments would stop functioning correctly. At the time of its launch, operations were estimated to last 3.5 years (to around the end of 2012). It continued to operate until 29 April 2013, when Herschel ran out of coolant.