SPIRE earns international award

A University of Lethbridge physics research team and a Lethbridge-based high tech data processing company are among the collective group of people behind the Herschel Space Telescope's Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) instrument, which has been awarded the prestigious 2013 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for academic study and research.

The award is in recognition of the scientific achievements of the SPIRE instrument, which was designed, built and operated by an international team of astronomers, scientists and engineers.

SPIRE was co-developed by Dr. David Naylor (physics and astronomy) and a team of researchers who led Canada's contribution to the Herschel project on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency.

Blue Sky Spectroscopy, a Lethbridge-based, high tech company, is one of the three international Data Processing and Science Analysis Software centres for the SPIRE instrument. 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.

Over a four-year mission period, Herschel -- the largest, most powerful infrared telescope ever flown in space -- made extraordinary discoveries across a wide range of topics, from starburst galaxies in the distant Universe to newly forming planetary systems orbiting nearby young stars. SPIRE is one of three devices attached to the Herschel telescope system.

"SPIRE detects 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," says Naylor.

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 travel. 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. Herschel operated until the end of its scientific mission on Apr. 29, 2013.

A multi-year data analysis period is now taking place.

The award was collected on behalf of the team by Tanya Lim, of the UK-based STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

"A lot of people from both science and engineering disciplines have dedicated up to 15 years of their lives of making SPIRE a scientific success," says Lim. "It is wonderful that we can all share in this award and we are very grateful for receiving it."

The UK team is led by Naylor's colleague Matt Griffin, of Cardiff University, Wales.

"Building and operating SPIRE has taken many years of effort by a lot of very talented people in our multi-national team. They are rightly proud of the scientific success of Herschel and SPIRE, and they are delighted to win this award."

The Sir Arthur Clarke awards are presented annually in recognition of notable or outstanding achievements in, or contributions to, all space activities. They are organized by the Arthur C Clarke Foundation and the British Interplanetary Society, and this year were presented during the conference dinner at the UK Space Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

The full list of 2013 winners are available on the British Interplanetary Society website.

This is the second Sir Arthur Clarke Award for the SPIRE team, with Matt Griffin receiving the award for individual achievement in 2010.