U of L researchers see Herschel mission shut down

Just a few days shy of its four-year anniversary, the Herschel Space Observatory has exhausted its supply of liquid helium coolant, and officially 'closed its eyes' on the universe, April 29.

Researchers around the world, and at the University of Lethbridge, now have a massive data collection, years of future research projects, and remarkable images that show unique star births sand star formations, galaxies and a host of other dramatic developments in the origins of the universe.

The pioneering space imaging mission logged more than 35,000 observations and generated more than 25,000 hours worth of science data from about 600 observing programmes. A further 2,000 hours of calibration observations will also contribute to the rich dataset.

Herschel (which operated more than 1.5 million km away from earth in deep space) included a scientific instrument co-developed by U of L researcher Dr. David Naylor (physics and astronomy) and his team, who led Canada's contribution to the Herschel project on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency.

The instrument, called the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver ("SPIRE"), is one of three devices attached to the Herschel telescope system. SPIRE measures infrared light and picks up heat and chemical signals that are not visible by optical telescopes -- turning that data into images and information researchers will use to learn more about the life and death of stars and galaxies.

Image samples are available here.

Now that the school-bus sized telescope will cease its active duty, astronomers from 14 countries, including Canada, will devote their full attention to analyzing the prolific telescope's legacy of data.

The five-year, post-operation phase will see the data obtained during the mission used to develop improved calibration algorithms to allow the most information to be extracted. Eventually the data will be reprocessed and placed in an archive.

In addition to dramatically enhancing the level of information about the origins of the universe, the U of L contributions to the Herschel mission saw the creation of numerous and unique student experiences at all levels, and a high-tech spin-off company - Blue Sky Spectroscopy - 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 will continue to be downloaded from the spacecraft and stored on the Blue Sky servers. 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, NIST, Centre d'Etudes Atomique, Paris, Institute National d'Optique, Canada to name a few.

Additional information about future projects University of Lethbridge researchers are planning that arise from the Herschel mission can be found at this website.

As well, Naylor and colleague Roy Golsteyn (biological sciences) are collaborating on a way to use the highly-sensitive imaging systems developed for deep space to detect rogue cancer cells.