The Heat Death of Herschel
Most of the astronomers who read this blog will have heard the news that the Herschel Space Observatory is running out of the Helium that it has been using to keep it cool enough (~1.4K) to be sensitive to the far-infra-red radiation emitted by very distant objects.
Many of these fuzzy blobs correspond to immensely distant galaxies; what we see is starlight from very young stars absorbed by vast amounts of cosmic dust and then re-radiated in the infra-red. Understanding these sources is decidedly non-trivial and it will take many years to get all the information out that is hidden in images like this.
Anyway, one thing worth pointing out here is that what is going on now with Herschel is not some kind of failure. Quite the contrary, in fact. The original mission lifetime was planned to be three years, and Herschel has now been operating for nine months longer than that. The supply of Helium was always going to be the limiting factor as the spacecraft operates at the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system, which is almost a million miles away and thus too far to be replenished. When the Helium does run out, Herschel will rapidly heat up to the point where its detectors are swamped. It will then be blind.
I was at this point going to make a cheap joke to the effect that after years on its own in the dark preoccupied with images of heavenly bodies, it was entirely predictable that Herschel would go blind. But I decided not to. I’ll save that kind of off-colour remark for Twitter…
ps. Coincidentally, on this day (March 13th) in 1781, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. The telescope is named in Herschel’s honour because he was also the first person to demonstrate the existence of infra-red radiation.Follow @telescoper