Herschel Space Observatory research to keep Naylor busy for years

When you talk to Dr. David Naylor (Institute for Space Imaging Science, Department of Physics and Astronomy), it is easy to get excited about his research, space exploration and the thought of imaging the unknown stars and galaxies that SPIRE, an instrumental concept he has been working on for 30 years will help to discover as it sits, 1.5 million km from Earth, bolted securely to the recently-launched Herschel Space Telescope.

The European Space Agency (ESA) Herschel mission, launched successfully from French Guiana on May 14, 2009 seeks to observe stars and galaxies at long-wavelengths (far-infrared).

Dr. David Naylor.

These wavelengths are able to penetrate interstellar dust, but are difficult to observe from Earth because the far infrared signals can't penetrate the Earth's atmosphere.

As the lead Canadian researcher for the Canadian Space Agency's contribution to the Herschel project – an international project involving eight nations -- Naylor has played a key role in the big science of space imagery by designing a device that has to function at a chilly -270C, collects infrared data from the far end of the light spectrum, and turns it into valuable information about the creation of stars and galaxies.
Naylor's instrument, called the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver ("SPIRE"), is one of three devices attached to the Herschel telescope system. SPIRE picks up heat signals that are not visible by optical telescopes, and will help to answer the age-old question astronomers have been asking for centuries: "What's out there?"

However, even with all his curiosity about what, in fact, might be 'out there,' it's hard to believe that Naylor can maintain that level of excitement for a project that that has faced financial and administrative hurdles, taken more than 15 years, many long days, about 100 students (in Lethbridge/Canada) and other researchers across the world to help develop.

And then there's the cost: approximately $100M to fit all that research into a box about as big as a toaster oven.

He's excited because it works. Finally.

"The mission control operators started the telescope up in stages," Naylor said. "Our instrument was the first brought on-line for performance verification. That means more than 250 tests to put it through its paces. And it is working flawlessly. The last time we had our hands on it was more than two years ago when SPIRE was sent from the UK for final testing and installation at ESA, so that was good news. To process the data to make it operate there are almost 2 billion lines of code involved, so to see a successful operation from this first test was a huge relief."

The next step, which also passed without a hitch, was to pop open the hatch -- officially called a 'cryocover', or the equivalent of a camera lens cap -- and reveal the giant 3.5m telescope mirror to the outer reaches of space.

But does Herschel do what it is supposed to do? The answer, of course, is yes – and much quicker and with more accuracy than any telescope launched to date. "Initial images reveal a level of detail never before seen from the ground or from space through the Hubble telescope, which sits only 400km from Earth," Naylor said.

"This isn't even the telescope operating at full capacity. These are initial 'test' images – like driving a racecar very slowly around the track… you know it works and is quite impressive, but wait until the driver opens the throttle!

"I am particularly proud of the first image that was released by the European Space Agency of a galaxy called the Whirlpool Galaxy. Prof. Christine Wilson, a research colleague from McMaster University, is leading this study of nearby galaxies. Wilson is one of five scientists who have access to the guaranteed observing time awarded to Canada in recognition of its contributions to the mission, contributions that are led from the U of L."

On July 10, the European Space Agency released even more images which clearly show the additional clarity the Observatory brings to knowledge about galaxies and star formations (See the "First Light" images, at this website:

Also, gratifying -- and possibly a bit overwhelming -- are the unique research collaborations that Naylor sees happening in the future, as data from the Herschel mission starts to flow.

"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," Naylor said.

"This means we will be in the best position to extract the most information from the astronomical data. Scientists will be seeking our help in analyzing their data and the U of L group will be 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 collaborating on current – and future -- projects busy for years.

To that end, Naylor is involved in several projects with physics and astronomy researchers across the country with diverse organizations such as the Canadian Space Agency, the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies and a host of partner universities.

Worldwide, his research partners include Rutherford Appleton Labs in Oxford (UK) and other research institutions in Europe.

In Alberta, a recent and significant collaboration has been launched with the University of Calgary, where the U of L and the U of C 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.

As well, Blue Sky Spectroscopy, a local high tech spin off company founded by Naylor in 2003, and now privately owned and operated, is rapidly developing a name for itself.

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.

Moreover, 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's servers. While their research might be "blue sky," down to Earth the company has an active astronomy education and outreach program within the local community.

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.

"Because the SPIRE device is so versatile – and is now proven to work – we expect it will be in demand for future space astronomy missions such as SPICA – the SPace Infrared telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics."

Put on the coffee; it seems that more sleepless nights in the lab are on the horizon.