Astronomers Capture Images of Herschel Telescope Heading Toward its ‘Graveyard’ Orbit

A pair of astronomers has proved that we haven’t seen the last of the Herschel Space Observatory! On June 17, 2013, engineers for the Herschel space telescope sent final commands to put the decommissioned observatory into its “graveyard” heliocentric parking orbit, after the liquid helium that cooled the observatory’s instruments was depleted. Now, Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido from the Remanzacco Observatory have used the 2 meter Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii to take a picture of the infrared observatory as it is moving away from its orbit around the L2 LaGrange Point where it spent the entirety of its mission.

Howes told Universe Today that their observations not only improve future chances of it being seen, but also will help astronomers in that the observatory won’t be mistaken for a new asteroid.

“We saw a potential issue here,” Howes said via email, “as the spacecraft would be in a slow tumble, receding from its stable L2 orbit, subjected to solar radiation pressure. And as ESA’s ground stations were no longer communicating with it, so we wanted to basically check the orbits and make sure that for future science, it was not mistakenly detected as an asteroid.”

The Herschel Telescope was imaged by Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido using Faulkes Telescope North in Haleakala, Hawaii, on June 26, 2013.
The Herschel Telescope was imaged by Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido using Faulkes Telescope North in Haleakala, Hawaii, on June 26, 2013.

When Howes and Guido realized that JPL’s Horizons coordinate system — which generates coordinates for objects in space like Herschel — would be suspending coordinates for the observatory from the end of June, they quickly and urgently used the information they had on Herschel’s movements to make their observations.

“The ephemeris from JPL and the Minor Planet Center varied,” Howes said, “and appeared to show quite different long term positions, so we took the initiative to try to help make sure this orbit was better understood. We knew ESA’s scientists had a pretty good handle on the position, but were perplexed by the variance in the coordinates being generated by the two ephemeris systems”

Radiation pressure and a host of other factors would have and will continue to affect the position of the spacecraft, but with it getting fainter by the day, Howes and Guido made the effort by taking two nights of observations to try and find Herschel as it drifted away from L2.

“Imaging a several metre wide spacecraft at over 2.1 million km from Earth in an orbit that was not quite precise, and a tumbling spacecraft is not an easy task, at the faint magnitudes it theoretically could have been at, ” said Guido, who helps manage the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy. “And while we found what we thought could be it on the first night, our calculations would need to be verified by observing it on a second night to validate that it was indeed Herschel.”

The orbit of Herschel during its mission. Credit: ESA.
The orbit of Herschel during its mission. Credit: ESA.

Howes, who’d written about Herschel when working in science communications for ESA, contacted several of the mission team via emails, who gave valuable advice on the effects of the final orbital burn.

“We effectively had three possible locations to hunt in,” Howes said, “and luckily, as rain at one of our telescope sites stopped our plans for the third run, and nothing showed up in our first coordinates, we managed to get it in the second set of images, exactly where we thought it could be, with the correct data for its motion, position angle and other orbital characteristics. Ernesto worked on the data reduction for these images, and after about 30 minutes of frantic discussion, said ‘I think I’ve found it.’”

The team have filed their data with the Minor Planet Center, and have worked closely with astronomers at Kitt Peak, who also imaged the Observatory, further refining the observing arc, passing their coordinates even on to astronomers in Chile, with significantly larger telescopes to get even more images of it.

The Faulkes Telescope Project is based at the University of South Wales, and the telescopes are operated by the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. The telescopes are also used for educational purposes, and schools using the Faulkes Telescope will be able to follow Herschel as she leaves her orbit to wander around the Sun. It will return to our neck of the Solar System around 2027/2028 (astrometry measured by Howes and Guido is factoring in radiation pressure, so the values are approximate), when it will return at around magnitude 21.7.

“We’ve engaged schools in this project as it’s great for learning astrometry, and photometry as well as a fun thing to do, and they’ve also been making animations from our data.”

Howes and Guido hope that the updated information will help others keep an eye on the telescope in the future. “It’s been an exciting week, and we wanted to say thank you to ESA for building such a magnificent telescope,” Howes said. “We just wanted to give it a good send off!”

Herschel Space Telescope Closes Its Eyes on the Universe

Sadly – though as expected – the most powerful far-infrared orbital telescope put in orbit has ended mission. The Herschel space observatory has now run out of liquid helium coolant, ending more than three years of pioneering observations of the cool Universe.

The spacecraft needs to be at temperatures as low as 0.3 Kelvin, or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit to make its observations, and mission scientists and engineers knew since Herschel’s launch on May 14, 2009 that the 2,300 liters of liquid helium would slowly evaporate away.

The Herschel team sent out a notice that the helium was finally exhausted today, noted at the beginning of the spacecraft’s daily communication session with its ground station in Western Australia. The data showed a clear rise in temperatures measured in all of Herschel’s instruments.

“Herschel has exceeded all expectations, providing us with an incredible treasure trove of data that that will keep astronomers busy for many years to come,” said Alvaro Giménez Cañete, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

The Herschel telescope will be parked indefinitely in a heliocentric orbit, as a way of “disposing” of the spacecraft. It should be stable for 100s of years, but perhaps scientists will figure out another use for it in the future. One original idea for disposing of the spacecraft was to have it impact the Moon, a la the LCROSS mission that slammed into the Moon in 2009, and it would kick up volatiles at one of the lunar poles for observation by another spacecraft, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But that idea has been nixed in favor of parking Herschel in a heliocentric orbit.

What has Herschel done in its three years of observations? It has made over 35,000 scientific observations, amassing more than 25,000 hours’ worth of science data from about 600 different observing programs. A further 2,000 hours of calibration observations also contribute to the rich dataset, which is based at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre, near Madrid in Spain.

But there will be more news the future from Herschel’s observations, as scientists comb through the data. The Herschel team said today that the telescope’s data is expected to provide even more discoveries than have been made during the lifetime of the Herschel mission.

“Herschel’s ground-breaking scientific haul is in no little part down to the excellent work done by European industry, institutions and academia in developing, building and operating the observatory and its instruments,” saids Thomas Passvogel, ESA’s Herschel Program Manager.

“Herschel has offered us a new view of the hitherto hidden Universe, pointing us to a previously unseen process of star birth and galaxy formation, and allowing us to trace water through the Universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and their planet-forming discs and belts of comets,” said Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel Project Scientist.

Source: ESA

Life and Death in a Tangled Web of Space

The Vela-C molecular cloud region as observed in far-infrared wavelengths. Credit: CNRS/INSU - Univ. Paris Diderot, France

In a star-making nebula awash in a tangled nest of gas and glowing filaments, scientists have uncovered an interesting, previously unseen interplay between gravity and turbulence that affects the formation of stars.

This image, taken by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, shows the highly detailed structure of cool wispy filaments of the Vela C molecular cloud. Located just 2,300 light-years from Earth, Vela-C is a vast star-making complex of gas and dust. And within this glowing cloud, both high-mass stars and smaller Sun-like stars form through very different processes.

Gravitational attraction pulls gas and dust together to form massive clumps of matter in glowing ridges. According to scientists studying the image, the most massive and brightest stars will form within these clumps. Random motion and turbulence throughout the cloud appear to create the fine nest-like filaments. It’s within these areas that smaller stars will form. Tiny, white specks fleck the image. These white dots, more abundant in the ridge-like filaments, are pre-stellar cores; compact clumps of gas and dust that might ignite into new stars.

Vela-C’s proximity to Earth makes it an ideal laboratory to study the birth of different kinds of stars. The nebula may also make it a perfect study of supernovae. The blue areas in the image contain expanding pockets of hot gas energized by the strong solar wind and ultraviolet radiation of young and massive stars. Compared to our Sun’s expected 10 billion year life-span, these massive stars burn through their supply of nuclear fuel within just a few million years. At the end of their lives, these stars will explode in dazzling supernovae.

The Herschel Telescope, launched in 2009, explores the Universe in the far infrared. While interstellar dust is cold, it shines brightly against the even colder surrounding space. The longest wavelengths of light show up as the red filaments in this image. Shorter, signifying hotter, wavelengths of light show up as yellow, green and blue.

Image Caption: The Vela-C molecular cloud region observed in far-infrared wavelengths. Credit: ESA/PACS/SPIRE/Tracey Hill & Frédérique Motte, Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, CEA/Irfu – CNRS/INSU – Univ. Paris Diderot, France

Astronomers See Stars Changing Right Before Their Eyes in Orion Nebula


A gorgeous new image from the tag team effort of the Herschel and Spitzer Space telescopes shows a rainbow of colors within the Orion nebula. The different colors reflect the different wavelengths of infrared light captured by the two space observatories, and by combining their observations, astronomers can get a more complete picture of star formation. And in fact, astronomers have spotted young stars in the Orion nebula changing right before their eyes, over a span of just a few weeks!

Astronomers with Herschel mapped this region of the sky once a week for six weeks in the late winter and spring of 2011. Notice the necklace of stars strung across the middle of the image? Over just that short amount of time, a discernible change in the stars took place as they appeared to be rapidly heating up and cooling down. The astronomers wondered if the stars were actually maturing from being star embryos, moving towards becoming full-fledged stars.

To monitor for activity in protostars, Herschel’s Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer stared in long infrared wavelengths of light, tracing cold dust particles, while Spitzer took a look at the warmer dust emitting shorter infrared wavelengths. In this data, astronomers noticed that several of the young stars varied in their brightness by more than 20 percent over just a few weeks.

As this twinkling comes from cool material emitting infrared light, the material must be far from the hot center of the young star, likely in the outer disk or surrounding gas envelope. At that distance, it should take years or centuries for material to spiral closer in to the growing starlet, rather than mere weeks.

The astronomers said a couple of scenarios could account for this short span. One possibility is that lumpy filaments of gas funnel from the outer to the central regions of the star, temporarily warming the object as the clumps hit its inner disk. Or, it could be that material occasionally piles up at the inner edge of the disk and casts a shadow on the outer disk.

“Herschel’s exquisite sensitivity opens up new possibilities for astronomers to study star formation, and we are very excited to have witnessed short-term variability in Orion protostars,” said Nicolas Billot, an astronomer at the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM) in Grenada, Spain who is preparing a paper on the findings along with his colleagues. “Follow-up observations with Herschel will help us identify the physical processes responsible for the variability.”

Source: NASA

Herschel Looks Back in Time to See Stars Bursting to Life


From a Royal Astronomical Society Press release:

Astronomers have found the first conclusive evidence for a dramatic surge in star birth in a newly discovered population of massive galaxies in the early Universe. Their measurements confirm the idea that stars formed most rapidly about 11 billion years ago, or about three billion years after the Big Bang, and that the rate of star formation is much faster than was thought.

The scientists used the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, an infrared telescope with a mirror 3.5 m in diameter, launched in 2009. They studied the distant objects in detail with the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) camera, obtaining solid evidence that the galaxies are forming stars at a tremendous rate and have large reservoirs of gas that will power the star formation for hundreds of millions of years.

Dr. Scott Chapman, from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, has presented the new results in a paper in a special edition of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society focusing on results from Herschel.

Scott comments “These Herschel-SPIRE measurements have revealed the new population of galaxies to be hotter than expected, due to stars forming far much more rapidly than we previously believed.”

The galaxies are so distant that the light we detect from them has been traveling for more than 11 billion years. This means that we see them as they were about three billion years after the Big Bang. The key to the new results is the recent discovery of a new type of extremely luminous galaxy in the early Universe. These galaxies are very faint in visible light, as the newly-formed stars are still cocooned in the clouds of gas and dust within which they were born. This cosmic dust, which has a temperature of around -240oC, is much brighter at the longer, far infrared wavelengths observed by the Herschel satellite.

The Herschel-SPIRE image, where 3 examples of the new 'hot starbursts' glowing blue are circled. They appear faint because they are very distant, seen only 3 billion years after the Big Bang (credit: ESA/SPIRE/HerMES).

A related type of galaxy was first found in 1997 (but not well understood until 2003) using the “SCUBA” camera attached to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Hawaii, which detects radiation emitted at even longer sub-millimeter wavelengths. But these distant “sub-millimeter galaxies” were thought to only represent half the picture of star formation in the early Universe. Since SCUBA preferentially detects colder objects, it was suggested that similar galaxies with slightly warmer temperatures could exist but have gone largely unnoticed.

Dr. Chapman and others measured their distances using the Keck optical telescope on Hawaii and the Plateau de Bure sub-millimeter observatory in France, but were unable to show that they were in the throes of rapid star formation.

Herschel is the first telescope with the capability to detect these galaxies at the peak of their output, so Dr. Chapman joined forces with the “HerMES” team, led by Professor Seb Oliver of the University of Sussex and Dr Jamie Bock in Caltech who were undertaking the largest survey of galaxies with Herschel.

With the Herschel observations, focused on around 70 galaxies in the constellation of Ursa Major, the scientists acquired the missing piece of evidence to confirm that these galaxies represent a crucial episode in the build up of large galaxies around us today, such as our own Milky Way.

The orignal Herschel-SPIRE image. Credit: ESA/SPIRE/HerMES.

Team member Professor Rob Ivison from the University of Edinburgh explains the significance of the new results. “With the data we had before, we couldn’t tell exactly where the infrared light from these galaxies comes from. But using SPIRE we can see that this is the signature of star formation”.

The new galaxies have prodigious rates of star formation, far higher than anything seen in the present day Universe. They probably developed through violent encounters between hitherto undisturbed galaxies, after the first stars and galaxy fragments had already formed. None the less, studying these new objects gives astronomers an insight into the earliest epochs of star formation after the Big Bang.

Team colleague Dr Isaac Roseboom from the University of Sussex sums up the work. “It was amazing and surprising to see the Herschel-SPIRE observations uncover such a dramatic population of previously unseen galaxies”. Professor Seb Oliver, also from Sussex, adds: “We are really blown away by the tremendous capability of Herschel to probe the distant universe. This work by Scott Chapman gives us a real handle on how the cosmos looked early in its life.”

With the new discovery, the UK-led astronomers have provided a much more accurate census of some of the most extreme galaxies in the Universe at the peak of their activity. Future observations will investigate the details of the galaxies’ power source and try to establish how they will develop once their intense bursts of activity come to an end.

Read the team’s paper.

Herschel Provides Gravitational Lens Bonanza

The image shows the first area of sky viewed as part of the Herschel-ATLAS survey. The five inset show enlarged views of the five distant galaxies whose images are being gravitationally lensed by foreground galaxies (unseen by Herschel). The distant galaxies are not only very bright, but also very red in colour in this image, showing that they are brighter at the longer wavelengths measured by the SPIRE instrument. Image credits: ESA/SPIRE/Herschel-ATLAS/SJ Maddox (top); ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Keck/SMA (bottom).


One of the predictions of Einstein’s predictions from general relativity was that gravity could distort space itself and potentially, act as a lens. This was spectacularly confirmed in 1919 when, during a solar eclipse, Arthur Eddington observed stars near the Sun were distorted from their predicted positions. In 1979, this effect was discovered at much further distances when astronomers found it to distort the image of a distant quasar, making one appear as two. Several other such cases have been discovered since then, but these instances of gravitational lensing have proven difficult to find. Searches for them have had a low success rate in which less than 10% of candidates are confirmed as gravitational lenses. But a new method using data from Herschel may help astronomers discover many more of these rare occurrences.

The Herschel telescope is one of the many space telescopes currently in use and explores the portion of the spectrum from the far infrared to the submillimeter regime. A portion of its mission is to produce a large survey of the sky resulting in the Herschel ATLAS project which will take deep images of over 550 square degrees of the sky.

While Herschel explores this portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in far greater detail than its predecessors, in many ways, there’s not much to see. Stars emit only very faintly in this range. The most promising targets are warm gas and dust which are better emitters, but also far more diffuse. But it’s this combination of facts that will allow Herschel to potentially discover new lenses with improved efficiency.

The reason is that, although galaxies lack strong emission in this regime in the modern universe, ancient galaxies gave off far more since during the first 4 billion years. During that time, many galaxies were dominated by dust being warmed by star formation. Yet due to their distance, they too should be faint… Unless a gravitational lens gets in the way. Thus, the majority of small, point-like sources in the ALTAS collection are likely to be lensed galaxies. As Dr Mattia Negrello, of the Open University and lead researcher of the study explains, “The big breakthrough is that we have discovered that many of the brightest sources are being magnified by lenses, which means that we no longer have to rely on the rather inefficient methods of finding lenses which are used at visible and radio wavelengths.”

These panels show a zoom of one of the lenses, with high resolution images from Keck (optical light, blue) and the submillimeter Array (sub-millimetre light, red). Image credits: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Keck/SMA
These panels show a zoom of one of the lenses, with high resolution images from Keck (optical light, blue) and the submillimeter Array (sub-millimetre light, red). Image credits: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Keck/SMA

Already, this new technique has turned up at least five strong candidates. A paper, to be published in the current issue of Science discusses them. Each of them received followup observations from the Z-Spec spectrometer on the California Institute of Technology Submillimeter Observatory. The furthest of these these objects, labeled as ID81, showed a prominent IR spectral line had a redshift of 3.04, putting it at a distance of 11.5 billion lightyears. Additionally, each system showed the spectral profile of the foreground galaxy, demonstrating that the combined light received was indeed two galaxies and the bright component was a gravitational lens.

This method of using gravitational lenses will allow the Herschel team to probe distant galaxies in detail never before achieved. As with all telescopes, longer wavelengths of observations result in less resolution which means that, even if one of the distant systems were to be broken into distinct portions, Herschel would be unable to resolve them. But the fact that we can see them at all means their spectral signatures of the galaxies as a whole can still be studied. Additionally, as Professor Steve Eales from Cardiff University and the other leader of the survey noted: “We can also use this technique to study the lenses themselves.” This potential to explore the mass of the nearby galaxies may help astronomers to understand and constrain the enigmatic Dark Matter that makes up ~80% of the mass in our universe.

Dr Loretta Dunne of Nottingham University and joint-leader of the Herschel-ATLAS survey adds, “What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. Wide area surveys are essential for finding these rare events and since Herschel has only covered one thirtieth of the entire Herschel-ATLAS area so far, we expect to discover hundreds of lenses once we have all the data. Once found, we can probe the early Universe on the same physical scales as we can in galaxies next door.”

Comet Whacked Neptune 200 Years Ago

Neptune. Credit: NASA

Researchers studying Neptune’s atmosphere found evidence that a comet may have hit the planet about two centuries ago. Was this a “cold-case” file re-opened, or did they discover a way to travel back in time to witness a long-ago event? To make the discovery, a team from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research actually used the Herschel Space Telescope’s PACS (Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer) instrument, along with what was learned from observations from when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter sixteen years ago.
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Galaxies Like Grains of Sand in New Herschel Image

Alternate Universe


Wow. Just wow. Each of the colored dots in this new image from the Herschel telescope is a galaxy containing billions of stars. These are distant luminous infrared galaxies, and appear as they did 10–12 billion years ago, packed together like grains of sand on a beach, forming large clusters of galaxies by the force of their mutual gravity.

“These amazing new results from Herschel are just a taste of things to come, as Herschel continues to unlock the secrets of the early stages of star birth and galaxy formation in our Universe,” said Dr. David Parker, Director of Space Science and Exploration at the UK Space Agency.

The galaxies are color coded in blue, green, and red to represent the three wavebands used for Herschel’s observation. Those appearing in white have equal intensity in all three bands and are the ones forming the most stars. The galaxies shown in red are likely to be the most distant, appearing as they did around 12 billion years ago.

For more than a decade, astronomers have puzzled over strangely bright galaxies in the distant Universe. These luminous infrared galaxies appear to be creating stars at such phenomenal rates that they defy conventional theories of galaxy formation.

Now ESA’s Herschel infrared space observatory, with its ability for very sensitive mapping over wide areas, has seen thousands of these galaxies and pinpointed their locations, showing for the first time just how closely they are sardined together.

The mottled effect in the image gives away this clustering. All the indications are that these galaxies are busy crashing into one another, and forming large quantities of stars as a result of these violent encounters.
This image is part of the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES) Key Project, which studies the evolution of galaxies in the distant, ancient Universe. The project uses the SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging REceiver) instrument on Herschel and has been surveying large areas of the sky, currently totalling 15 square degrees, or around 60 times the apparent size of the Full Moon.

This particular image was taken in a region of space called the Lockman hole, which allows a clear line of sight out into the distant Universe. This ‘hole’ is located in the familiar northern constellation of Ursa Major, The Great Bear.

HerMES will continue to collect more images, over larger areas of the sky in order to build up a more complete picture of how galaxies have evolved and interacted over the past 12 billion years.

Sources: UKSA, Online Showcase of Herschel Images

Herschel Spots Previously Unseen Stars in Rosette Nebula

Infrared image of the Rosette molecular cloud by the Herschel space observatory. Credits: ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortium/HOBYS Key Programme Consortia

Wow, what a gorgeous new image from the Herschel telescope – and what makes this especially stunning is that we’ve never seen these stars before! And these stars in the Rosette Nebula are huge, as each one is up to ten times the mass of our Sun. “High-mass star-forming regions are rare and further away than low-mass ones,” said Frédérique Motte, from the Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, France. “So astronomers have had to wait for a space telescope like Herschel to reveal them.”
Continue reading “Herschel Spots Previously Unseen Stars in Rosette Nebula”

First Science Results in from Herschel Telescope

Herschel looks deep inside the heart of a dark cloud located 1000 light years away in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle.Credit: ESA and the SPIRE and PACS consortia

The science teams from the Herchel telescope are meeting this week to discuss their first results from the intial months of observations by the newest infrared space telescope, which was launched in May. While details of the scientific findings won’t be released until Friday after everyone at the meetings has had a chance to share their results, ESA released a few stunning new pictures to give everyone a sample of what is to come. In addition to the images shown here, hints of other upcoming images include the most distant known quasar, a dwarf planet, and water sublimating from a comet’s surface. Some of the images have been described as among the most important images obtained from space for decades.

Above, Herschel peered deep inside an unseen stellar nursery in located 1000 light years away in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle, revealing a surprising amounts of activity. Some 700 newly-forming stars are estimated to be crowded into filaments of dust stretching through the image. The image is the first new release of ‘OSHI’, ESA’s Online Showcase of Herschel Images.

Herschel's look at the Southern Cross. Credits: ESA and the PACS consortium
Herschel's look at the Southern Cross. Credits: ESA and the PACS consortium

Another images release of the Southern Cross shows that even the darkest patches of sky can shine brightly to Herschel. Usually, this region looks like a bland cloud of dust, but Herschel shows it to be a place of intense star formation with filaments and condensations of dust cocooning newly forming stars. The dust forms into clumps along magnetic lines – like pearls on a necklace. Each clump is a very early star – at its embryonic stage.

The third image is of the spiral galaxy M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, showing off its spectacular infrared colors. Two huge waves of star formation encircle its central nucleus, making beautiful spiral arms. Each one shines brightly with its dust being warmed by the young stars.

Herschel's Whirlpool Galaxy.  Credit:  ESA and PACS team
Herschel's Whirlpool Galaxy. Credit: ESA and PACS team

Source: OSHI