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Herschel space 'scope flips its lid

Pops lens cap, first observations follow

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The European Space Agency has successfully commanded the Herschel space telescope to open the protective cover protecting its instruments, meaning scientists can get down to the task of observing the universe in far infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths.

In a department of the bleedin' obvious moment, the team behind Herschel's Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE), described this as a "vital step" because if the lid hadn't popped (see demonstration vid), the 'scope "would never be able to make any observations because the instruments would not be able to see the sky".

SPIRE's principal investigator, professor Matt Griffin, explained: "A command was transmitted to the Herschel spacecraft to execute this critical operation. Herschel is so far away that actually it took over five seconds to reach the spacecraft. The cover then opened exactly as planned.

"Two small pyrotechnic charges were fired and the cover sprang back, opening the window and allowing the light collected by the Herschel telescope to get in to the instruments. Now we can make our first observations with Herschel."

Artist's impression of Herschel. Pic: ESAHerschel will later this week make trial observations of Neptune and the Helix Nebula: "a bright cloud of luminous material formed at the end of a star's evolution". Scientists will then test the spacecraft's pointing system.

Herschel launched on 14 may from the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, accompanied by the Planck telescope. The latter is dedicated to "the study of relic radiation from the Big Bang", sniffing the Cosmic Microwave Background "with the highest accuracy ever achieved".

The former has a list of tasks including to probe the "formation of galaxies in the early universe and their subsequent evolution", "investigate the creation of stars and their interaction with the interstellar medium" and "examine the molecular chemistry of the universe".

To do this, it boasts a a 3.5 m diameter primary mirror feeding a high-resolution spectrometer dubbed the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI) plus a pair of cameras/imaging spectrometers: the Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) and the aforementioned SPIRE. There's more on the instruments here.

Both 'scopes will operate from orbits around "L2", the second Lagrangian point of the Sun-Earth system lying around 1.5 million km from Earth. ®

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