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Space Science

For ESA's Herschel Mission, the End Is Near 40

Trapezium Artist writes "The European Space Agency's far-infrared space observatory, Herschel, will soon run out of its liquid helium coolant, ending observations after more than three years of highly successful scientific operations. Predictions by ESA engineers are that Herschel will run out of helium later in March, at which point its instruments will warm up, rendering them effectively blind. Herschel was launched in 2009 along with ESA's Planck satellite to the Sun-Earth L2 point, roughly 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. At that location, the Sun and Earth remain along a more or less constant vector with respect to a spacecraft, meaning that it can cool to very low temperatures behind a sunshield. At such a large distance from Earth, however, there is no way of replenishing the coolant, and Herschel will be pushed off the L2 point to spend its retirement in a normal heliocentric orbit. With the largest monolithic mirror ever flown in space at 3.5 meters diameter and three powerful scientific instruments, Herschel has made exciting discoveries about the cool Universe, ranging from dusty starburst galaxies at high redshifts to star-forming regions spread throughout the Milky Way and proto-planetary disks of gas and dust swirling around nearby young stars. And with an archive full of data, much of it already public, Herschel is set to produce new results for years to come."
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For ESA's Herschel Mission, the End Is Near

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  • Re:leave it at L2 (Score:4, Informative)

    by NixieBunny ( 859050 ) on Wednesday March 06, 2013 @11:57AM (#43093169) Homepage
    Hopefully, the scientific instruments will have improved substantially in 30 years, so its guts will be obsolete and therefore useless. As a worker in terrestrial radio astronomy, I can assure you that we don't use any receivers more than 15 years old, and those are about 5x less sensitive than current instruments. Any system designed for space will use the latest proven technology, given the cost to get it up there.
  • Re:leave it at L2 (Score:5, Informative)

    by Trapezium Artist ( 919330 ) on Wednesday March 06, 2013 @01:38PM (#43094769)

    It's not being moved because it will clutter up L2. Indeed, such satellites don't sit exactly at the L2 point, but travel around it in orbits which are hundreds of thousands of kilometres wide. There's effectively no danger of any satellites at L2 hitting future ones.

    No, the reason is that L2 isn't a stable location: the gravitational potential there is saddle-shaped. Very crudely, along the line of the orbit around the Sun, the satellite sits at the bottom of a curve. Move forward a bit and the Earth's gravity pulls you back. Fall behind a little bit and the same happens. However, perpendicular to the orbital track, in the plane of the ecliptic (the plane containing the planets), it's more like the top of a gravitational hill. Fall a little away from the Earth and bingo, the Earth is no longer strong enough to pull you back and you fall off, outwards.

    But if you fall inwards, towards the Earth, the Earth's gravity gets stronger and pulls you even closer. So much so, that you might end up hitting the Earth.

    So that's the reason why Herschel and other satellites there (WMAP in the past, Planck today, Gaia and JWST in the future) are pushed off L2 while the satellites still have propellant and are functional (if not scientifically) into heliocentric orbits, to prevent the possibility of the falling onto the Earth in an uncontrolled manner later.

  • by Trapezium Artist ( 919330 ) on Wednesday March 06, 2013 @05:36PM (#43097555)

    Problem is that Herschel's primary mirror was only polished to the level of surface roughness required for the telescope to be diffraction-limited (i.e. as good as it gets) at far-infrared wavelengths. It wasn't polished to the level necessary to form good images at optical wavelengths.

    Just to put some numbers on that, Herschel's shortest operating wavelength is 70 microns (70 millionths of a metre), whereas the red end of the visible is around 0.7 microns, i.e. 100 times shorter.

    Polishing the mirror to a factor of 100 lower surface roughness would have been far more expensive and perhaps even not possible using the underlying segmented silicon carbide technology. (SiC can be polished to optical tolerances, but I don't know if Herschel's substrate was made to the appropriate tolerances).

As in certain cults it is possible to kill a process if you know its true name. -- Ken Thompson and Dennis M. Ritchie