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Jason DavisJune 18, 2013

Goodnight, Herschel Space Observatory

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory received its final command yesterday, as ground controllers directed the telescope to deplete the last of its fuel and slip into its final heliocentric orbit. Herschel’s observations had already ended on April 29, when the infrared observatory's liquid helium supply ran out.

The telescope was launched in 2009 to study early Universe galaxy formation, observe star creation and study the atmospheric chemistry of objects in our solar system. Although Herschel won’t be making any future observations, it leaves behind a vast archive of data that scientists can analyze for years.

Andromeda galaxy in far-infrared

ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, O. Krause, HSC, H. Linz.

Andromeda galaxy in far-infrared
This far-infrared image of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, was taken by the Herschel Space Observatory on Feb. 6, 2013. Star-forming regions of gas with temperatures barely above absolute zero are shown in orange, while slightly warmer, older stars in the central bulge are shown in blue.

Herschel has a 3.5-meter mirror—for comparison, that’s bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror. It observed infrared light with wavelengths from 55 to 672 micrometers (one micrometer equals one millionth of a meter). In astronomy terms, that’s the far-infrared, which means the telescope could see the heat emanating from some of the coldest objects in the Universe, including chilly clouds of gas and dust where baby stars are just starting to form.

Baby stars in the Rosette Nebula

ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, Frédérique Motte, Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, CEA/IRFU - CNRS/INSU - Uni. Paris Diderot, HOBYS Key Programme Consortia

Baby stars in the Rosette Nebula
This image of NGC 2244 from the Herschel Space Observatory shows newly-formed stars shrouded in clouds of dust and gas. While the red regions on the left are baby stars similar to our own Sun, the bright blue splotches will form stars ten times more massive.

Powerful infrared telescopes come with a price: a shorter shelf life. Herschel’s detectors were kept at extremely cold temperatures—just above absolute zero—in order to keep the telescope’s own heat from interfering with its observations. To do this, engineers cooled Herschel with liquid helium, which was expected to last three-and-a-half years. Herschel stretched the supply an extra five months, making its final observation on April 29.

During its operational period, the telescope orbited the Second Lagrangian point, or L2, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Spacecraft at L2 are able to cruise around the Sun in line with the Earth, which offers several benefits. Unlike low-Earth orbiting spacecraft, L2 objects don’t pass in and out of Earth’s shadow several times per day, allowing them to stay at a constant temperature. They also avoid the warmth of Earth itself, which is important for heat-sensitive telescopes like Herschel (the James Webb Space Telescope will also orbit L2).

Second Lagrangian point (L2)

European Space Agency

Second Lagrangian point (L2)
The Sun-Earth Second Lagrangian point, or L2, is one of five places orbiting spacecraft can remain stable relative to the Sun and Earth.

On May 13 and 14, ground controllers fired Herschel’s thrusters for 7 hours and 45 minutes, sending it into a heliocentric (sun-centered) orbit to avoid damaging other spacecraft. Before disposing of Herschel, ESA operators used the opportunity to conduct a series of technology tests. In an article released by the ESA, Spacecraft Operations Manager Micha Schmidt said “the ExoMars team asked us to do some validation using Herschel’s Visual Monitoring Camera; a similar model will fly on their mission. And the Euclid team asked us for some reaction wheel tests.”

To look through more pretty pictures that Herschel took during its four year mission, check out this interactive map that allows you to zoom in on specific Herschel images.

Fomalhaut and its debris disc

ESA/Herschel/PACS/Bram Acke, KU Leuven, Belgium

Fomalhaut and its debris disc
This image of the young star Fomalhaut shows a debris disc similar to what the Kuiper Belt may have looked like in our own solar system's early days. Fomalhaut is home to the first directly-imaged extrasolar planet, Fomalhaut b.


Read more: stars and galaxies, astronomy

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Jason Davis

Journalist and Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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