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Deep-space observatories

The engineers, scientists and astronomers behind the Herschel and Planck missions have confirmed that the deep-space observatories will be launched aboard Ariane 5 on 14 May 2009.

The engineers, scientists and astronomers behind the Herschel and Planck missions (The Engineer, 21 April 2009) have confirmed that the deep-space observatories will be launched aboard Ariane 5 on 14 May 2009.

The UK has invested £13m into Herschel,­­ the 3.5m mirror of which will collect long-wavelength radiation from some of the coldest and most distant objects in the universe, and £17m into Planck, which is designed to make precision measurements of the cosmic background radiation.

They will be launched jointly to the second Lagrange point (L2), an area on the far side of the Earth from the Sun, and will peer into deep space.

Richard Holdaway, director of space services at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said: ‘This is only the second mission ever to L2 to gather the most detailed information ever on the birth of the universe.

‘It’s great that the UK is playing such an important role.

‘It is the sort of science that really inspires people to take up science at school and university.’

Prof David Southwood, director of science and robotic exploration for ESA, said that though spinouts from space technology are important, it’s also important that the UK keeps its prime position in space through its involvement with ESA.

‘We’re extremely proud to be launching this in the middle of the international year of astronomy,’ he said.

‘Astronomy is essential to our life on earth as it has formed the basis of much of our chemistry, physics and understanding of why we’re here.’

Hershel is the largest space telescope ever to be launched, measuring 7.2 x 4m and weighing in at 3,400kg.

Once deployed, it will look for the origins of galaxies, stars, planets and life.

Planck will look for the first light in the universe from 380,000 years after the big bang.

It will look into the universe’s age, dynamics, normal and dark matter and, according to Southwood, will pose the most fundamental question: ‘Do we understand physics at all?’

During the first six months in space, each observatory will be commissioned, undergo performance verification, science demonstration then start their three-years of routine observation.

Between now and the launch, the Herschel/Planck team will carry out last-minute cryogenic fuelling for refrigeration during the mission.

Griffin said: ‘We have been laying out plans for the commissioning and verification phases but we have to be prepared for any last-minute changes.

‘We’re putting data through our data-processing pipelines to make sure those work to process the huge amount of data that will be transmitted.’

‘Then we set the launch off and hope our shaking and acoustic testing worked,’ said Southwood.

‘Then we break out the champagne.

‘But for the first 26-odd minutes the Ariane launcher authorities are in charge and all I can do is hold on for dear life.

‘I take over from the time the observatories separate.

‘Like a new baby, you count all the fingers and toes are there.

‘I will feel comfortable an hour after launch and not really comfortable until a few months later.’

Berenice Baker



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