Eyes on the universe

An instrument developed in the UK to study an unexplored part of the universe has left for installation on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel spacecraft in Germany.

The Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (Spire) was designed, assembled and tested at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire, by an international consortium from Europe, the US, Canada and China.

Herschel, a multi-purpose space observatory, is due to launch in 2008 in a dual configuration with Planck, ESA’s cosmic microwave background mission.

The spacecraft will view the universe in the far and sub-millimetre wavelength bands and study how stars form and evolve. It will also research our own galaxy and its evolution.

Spire comprises three elements. The first is the focal plane unit, which will be inside the Herschel cryostat and is responsible for keeping all the spacecraft’s instrumentation cool.

The other elements are two boxes of warm electronics that will be used to control the instrument and collect data.

Prof Matt Griffin from Cardiff University, SPIRE’s principal investigator, said: ‘Spire is designed to exploit Herschel’s unique capabilities in addressing two of the most prominent questions in astrophysics: how and when did galaxies form and how do stars form?’

Herschel: artist’s view of the spacecraft

With a sophisticated payload, Herschel will also be able to study the atmospheres around planets, comets and satellites.

Two other instruments are on board: the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared and the Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer.

Spire is being transported to EADS Astrium’s test facility in Friedrichschafen in Germany, where it will be tested with the other instruments before being assembled on the spacecraft next year.