Herschel mission coming to close

A pioneering space imaging mission that sent a U of L Physics research device on a 1.5 million kilometre trip into deep space aboard the Herschel Space Observatory might be nearing its conclusion, but that doesn't mean the end of the project for the research team.

Dr. David Naylor (Physics and Astronomy) and his team of researchers lead one of Canada's contributions to the European Space Agency (ESA) Herschel mission on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency. The instrument, called the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver ("SPIRE"), is one of three scientific instruments attached to the Herschel telescope system.

The helium-filled 'gas tank' cooling Herschel's equipment is expected to run dry over the next few weeks – a planned process. As the coolant diminishes, equipment will stop working but data transmissions will continue until the school bus-sized telescope parks itself in a permanent orbit around the sun.

The mission, launched into space on May 14, 2009 from the Ariane Spaceport in French Guiana, very quickly began to shed new light on stars and galaxies by measuring a level of light called far-infrared. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, but travels well across the universe.

Star-forming regions emit light at these wavelengths and Herschel can detect it, capturing a wealth of detail such as heat signatures and chemical composition that help astronomers clearly see, for the first time, stars and whole galaxies that have previously remained hidden or only poorly understood.

"SPIRE picks up heat and chemical signals that are not visible by optical telescopes, and turns that data into the amazing images and information we and other scientists are using to learn more about the life and death of stars and galaxies," Naylor said.

In addition to literally 'clearing up' the images people have been using for two centuries to look into space, Naylor said the Herschel mission is confirming the existence of molecules on earth that originated in space.

"With SPIRE we can look at the big picture, or the very tiny picture, and gain a whole new insight into how stars live and die. The reason the imagery is so clear is that the space observatory sits more than 1.5 million km from earth, far from our atmosphere and other types of optical distractions that interfere with gaining good data which can be turned into images."

To view some of the images brought back to earth from Herschel, please visit this European Space Agency website.

The precious data and crisp images come from a device about as big as a large microwave oven that took more than 15 years and $100 million to develop – and has to function at a chilly –270C.

"Approximately one-third of the time available to researchers is guaranteed to those involved in key projects, and our time is included in that. We see the data here in Lethbridge before anyone else does. Scientists are seeking our help in analyzing their data and the U of L group is an important Canadian and international resource."

With an estimated output of up to 7,000 hours per year of data, there should be enough information to keep researchers busy for years – and some of that data flows through Blue Sky Spectroscopy, a Lethbridge-based, high tech spinoff company founded by Naylor in 2003, and now privately owned and operated.

Blue Sky is one of the three international Data Processing and Science Analysis Software centres for the SPIRE instrument. Data are downloaded daily from the spacecraft and stored on the Blue Sky servers.

The Blue Sky team is planning to continue to improve data processing software and calibration of the SPIRE instrument through the three years of the post-operational phase, starting once Herschel has run out of Helium.

Its highly qualified staff, all with postgraduate degrees, specialize in custom hardware and software spectroscopic solutions. Customers include NASA, ESA, and CSA, and many leading research institutes such as Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Max Planck and Cardiff to name a few.

What's next?

According to Naylor, more research that refines his current SPIRE device to make it suitable for yet another space mission which is currently under review by the Japanese, European and Canadian Space Agencies. The project – SPICA, which stands for Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics – is a next-generation version of the SPIRE device, and would perform a similar function on a space telescope planned to launch in 2022.

In Alberta, a recent and significant collaboration has also been launched with the University of Calgary, where the U of L and the U of C and Athabasca University have formed the Institute for Space Imaging Science (ISIS) to work together on projects that take space research further than Herschel technology, whether on the ground or in the atmosphere.

"By nature, physics researchers don't get too excited, but to see these images and know that we're looking at them in a whole new way, and further that we'll be able to share this information with the public so they can learn about the origins of the universe, is truly exciting," Naylor said.

He estimates that more than 200 papers have already been produced using data from the Herschel mission, and approximately half of those have some type of Canadian connection.