Herschel telescope 'opens eyes'

Num7

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Herschel telescope 'opens eyes'

Herschel telescope 'opens eyes'
14 June 2009
Europe's new billion-euro Herschel space observatory, launched in May, has achieved a critical milestone.

The telescope has opened the hatch that has been protecting its sensitive instruments from contamination.

The procedure allowed light collected by Herschel's giant 3.5m mirror to flood its supercold instrument chamber, or cryostat, for the first time.

The observatory's quest is to study how stars and galaxies form, and how they evolve through cosmic time.

The command sent on Sunday to fire two pyrotechnic bolts holding down the hatch was arguably the key moment in the European Space Agency (Esa) mission since the 14 May launch from Earth.

"We need the lid open or we can't see the sky, so it's a really important event," said Professor Matt Griffin, the principal investigator on SPIRE, one of three instruments inside the cryostat.

There is a YouTube video that shows what would have happened - in slow motion.

News of the hatch opening came on the eve of the Paris air show, a big event in the space calendar when Esa and the space industry come together to celebrate their achievements.

A Herschel display is a prominent feature in the Esa pavilion which the public can visit from Friday 19 June, after the trade days here at Le Bourget that run from Monday to Thursday.

Scientists stress it will be a while yet before they are ready to release a "first light" image from the telescope. Herschel is little more than half way through its check-out phase and it is still several weeks away from beginning full operations.

The astronomical community - and the public - will have to be patient as they wait for Esa's flagship space telescope (which is bigger than Hubble in mirror diameter) to show off its capability.

Herschel is sensitive to light at long wavelengths - in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre range.

This will allow it to see past the dust that scatters visible wavelengths, and to gaze at really cold places and objects in the Universe - from the birthing clouds of new stars to the icy comets that live far out in our Solar System.

For the observatory to see these phenomena requires that it, too, be very cold. Superfluid helium is used to take its instruments very close to "absolute zero" (-273C). This is done inside a huge evacuated tank.

For nearly two years, the instruments have been locked away in the top of this cryostat to maintain their frigid state and protect them from contamination. Only now - a month into the mission - was it considered safe to open the lid.

"Anything that's launched into space always has some water vapour and various other contaminants - volatile gases - absorbed in its materials; and in space the water and these volatiles slowly boil away into the vacuum of space," explained Professor Griffin, who is affiliated to Cardiff University, UK.

"It is conventional and necessary to wait for this to happen, to make sure these contaminants don't find their way inside the cryostat where they could condense in the instruments."

Herschel is heading for an observation position some 1.5 million km from Earth. It is more than 90% of the way there.

Indeed, its distance from home is now so great it took almost five seconds for the pyro command to reach Herschel. A slight temperature rise and a shaking detected on the spacecraft indicated to controllers that the lid opening was successful.
BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Herschel telescope 'opens eyes'
 

Whitelight

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Re: Herschel telescope 'opens eyes'

That's neat!

Bigger than the Hubel telescope eh? I knew they would find a way to do it, and a neat strategy too.

I wonder what it's like to look out a telescope that big? I have never looked out of a normal one.
 


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