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Paris (ESA) May 02, 2013
Herschel ESA's Herschel space observatory has exhausted its supply of liquid helium coolant, ending more than three years of pioneering observations of the cool universe.
The event was not unexpected: the mission began with over 2300 liters of liquid helium, which has been slowly evaporating since the final top-up the day before Herschel's launch on 14 May 2009.
The liquid helium was essential to cool the observatory's instruments to close to absolute zero, allowing Herschel to make highly sensitive observations of the cold universe until today.
The confirmation that the helium is finally exhausted came this afternoon at the beginning of the spacecraft's daily communication session with its ground station in Western Australia, with 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," says Prof. Alvaro Gimenez Canete, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.
Herschel has made over 35,000 scientific observations, amassing more than 25,000 hours' worth of science data from about 600 observing programs. A further 2000 hours of calibration observations also contribute to the rich dataset, which is based at ESA's European Space Astronomy Center, near Madrid in Spain.
The archive will become the legacy of the mission. It 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," says 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," says Goran Pilbratt, ESA's Herschel Project Scientist.
If conditions are right, gravity then takes over and fragments the filaments into compact cores. Deeply embedded inside these cores are protostars, the seeds of new stars that have gently heated their surrounding dust to just a few degrees above absolute zero, revealing their locations to Herschel's heat-sensitive eyes.
Following the Water trail
Herschel has detected thousands of Earth ocean's worth of water vapor in these discs, with even greater quantities of ice locked up on the surface of dust grains and in comets.
Closer to home, Herschel has also studied the composition of the water-ice in Comet Hartley-2, finding it to have almost exactly the same isotopic ratios as the water in our oceans.
These findings fuel the debate about how much of Earth's water was delivered via impacting comets. Combined with the observations of massive comet belts around other stars, astronomers hope to understand whether a similar mechanism could be in play in other planetary systems, too.
Galaxies Across the Universe
These intense star-forming galaxies produce hundreds to thousands of solar masses' worth of stars each year. By comparison, our own Milky Way Galaxy produces the equivalent of only one Sun-like star per year on average.
How galaxies can support star formation on such massive scales during the first few billions of years of the universe's existence poses a crucial problem for scientists studying galaxy formation and evolution.
Herschel observations are hinting that when the universe was young, galaxies had much more gas to feed from, enabling high rates of star formation even in the absence of the collisions between galaxies normally needed to spark these spectacular bouts of star birth.
"Although this is the end of Herschel observing, it is certainly not the end of the mission - there are plenty more discoveries to come," says Dr. Pilbratt.
"We will now spend the next few years making our data accessible in the form of the best possible maps, spectra and various catalogues to support the work of present and future astronomers. Nevertheless, we're sad to see the end of this phase: thank you, Herschel!"
Herschel at ESA
Space Telescope News and Technology at Skynightly.com
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