Herschel Mission Operating Phase Wrapping Up

A pioneering space imaging mission that sent a scientific instrument co-developed by a U of L researcher on a 1.5 million kilometre trip to deep space aboard the Herschel Space Observatory might be nearing its conclusion, but that doesn't mean the end of the project for the research team.

Dr. David Naylor (Physics and Astronomy) and his team of researchers lead Canada's contribution to the Herschel project on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency.

The instrument, called the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver ("SPIRE"), is one of three devices attached to the Herschel telescope system.

The helium-filled 'gas tank' cooling Herschel's equipment is expected to run dry over the next few weeks – an expected process.

As the coolant diminishes, equipment will stop working, but data transmission will continue until the bus-sized telescope parks itself in a permanent orbit around the sun.

What follows is a five-year post operation phase, where the data obtained during the mission are used to develop improved calibration algorithms to allow the most information to be extracted from the images. Eventually the data will be reprocessed and placed in an archive that will have legacy value.

The mission, launched on May 14, 2009 from the Ariane Spaceport in French Guyana, almost immediately began to shed new light on stars and galaxies by measuring a level of light called far-infrared.

Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, but travels well across the universe. Star forming regions emit light at these wavelengths and Herschel can detect it, capturing a wealth of detail such as heat signatures and chemical composition that help astronomers clearly see, for the first time, stars and whole galaxies that have previously remained hidden or only poorly understood.

"SPIRE picks up heat and chemical signals that are not visible by optical telescopes, and turns that data into the amazing images and information we and other scientists are using to learn more about the life and death of stars and galaxies," Naylor said.

In addition to literally 'clearing up' the images people have been using for two centuries to look into space, Naylor said the Herschel mission is confirming the existence of molecules on earth that originated in space.

"With SPIRE we can look at the big picture, or the very tiny picture, and gain a whole new insight into how stars live and die. The reason the imagery is so clear is that the space observatory sits more than 1.5 million km from earth, far from our atmosphere which absorbs virtually all radiation at which far-infrared wavelengths. Since the universe emits most of its energy at these wavelengths, Herschel provides us with our first comprehensive view of the universe."

The data and crisp images come from a device about as big as a large microwave oven that took more than 15 years and $100 million to develop – and has to function at a chilly -270C.

Also gratifying are the unique research collaborations that Naylor sees happening in the future. "Approximately one-third of the time available to researchers is guaranteed to those involved in key projects, and our time is included in that. We see the data here in Lethbridge before anyone else does. Scientists will be seeking our help in analyzing their data and the U of L group will be an important Canadian and international resource."

With an estimated output of up to 7,000 hours per year of data, there should be enough information to keep researchers busy for years – and some of that data flows through Blue Sky Spectroscopy, a Lethbridge-based, high tech spinoff company founded by Naylor in 2003, and now privately owned and operated.

Blue Sky is one of the three international Data Processing and Science Analysis Software centres for the SPIRE instrument. Data are downloaded daily from the spacecraft and stored on the Blue Sky servers.

Its highly qualified staff, all with postgraduate degrees, specialize in custom hardware and software spectroscopic solutions. Customers include NASA, ESA, and CSA, and many leading research institutes such as Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Max Planck and Cardiff, NIST, Centre d'Etudes Atomique, Paris, Institute National d'Optique, Canada to name a few.

What's next?

According to Naylor, more research that refines his current SPIRE device to make it suitable for yet another space mission currently under review by the Japanese, European and Canadian Space Agencies.

The project – SPICA, which stands for Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics – is a next-generation version of the SPIRE device, and would perform a similar function on a space telescope planned to launch in 2022.

Learn more about the SPICA project, here:

Naylor said Herschel has been an overwhelming success, but its sensitivity is limited by its 'warm' telescope. "At a temperature of -80K (-193C) this may sound cold, but it limits the achievable sensitivity. By cooling a telescope to -6K (-267C) would increase the sensitivity by an astonishing factor of 100, allowing it to explore a volume of space 1000x greater than Herschel".

Building on the success of Herschel, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA is developing such a cooled telescope. ESA has joined forces with JAXA; in return for ESA providing the telescope and a ground station, European scientists will build one of the flight instruments.

Based on the Herschel experience, an imaging FTS similar to the ones Naylor's group has been building for over two decades has been selected and Naylor has been invited to join the international team that will build the instrument known as SAFARI.

The instrument is similar to one that the U of L team has recently commissioned on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the world's largest submillimetre telescope located atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The space-based project, SPICA – which stands for Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics – is a next-generation version of the SPIRE device, and would perform a similar function on a space telescope planned to launch in 2022.

In Alberta, a recent and significant collaboration has also been launched with the University of Calgary, where the U of L and the U of C and Athabasca University have formed the Institute for Space Imaging Science (ISIS) to work together on projects that take space research further than Herschel technology, whether on the ground or in the atmosphere.

"By nature, physics researchers don't get too excited, but to see these images and know that we're looking at them in a whole new way, and further that we'll be able to share this information with the public so they can learn about the origins of the universe, is truly exciting," Naylor said.

He estimates that more than 200 papers have already been produced using data from the Herschel mission, and approximately half of those have Canadian co-authors.

The geographical distribution of SPIRE science within Canada is broad with authors affiliated with the following universities/institutions: UBC, Calgary, CFHT, HIA/UVic, Laval, Lethbridge, McMaster, Toronto, Waterloo. As well, a large group of researchers, including more than 30 post docs, undergrad and grad students have conducted research using SPIRE data.

An example of the type of imaging and discoveries made possible by the Herschel Space Observatory can be found here:

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The images are made possible in part by technology created by University of Lethbridge researchers, and designed and built by an international consortium of space agencies, universities and research institutes.