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    Herschel opens its eyes

    14-June-2009

    The Herschel Space Observatory, launched only on month ago, is still being commissioned, and the first images from its instruments were planned to arrive in a few weeks. But, when the spacecraft's cryostat cover was opened on Sunday, 14 June, and the instruments were able to "see" the sky for the first time, ESA suggested to the PACS instrument team to use this opportunity to produce a very early image that could give a glimpse of things to come. The Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) was lucky enough to capture some images, indeed, that immediately demonstrated the superiority of Herschel, the largest infrared space telescope.

    The images show the famous 'whirlpool galaxy', first observed by Charles Messier in 1773 who provided the designation Messier 51 (M51). This classic example of a spiral galaxy lies relatively nearby, about 37 million light-years away, in the constellation of Canes Venatici.

    Share the excitement of the PACS team as the first image from Herschel arrives at the Instrument Control Center (Video courtesy of our colleagues at CEA, Saclay )

     

    The images were taken with the 3-band photometer of PACS, at wavelengths of 160 microns, 100 microns, and 70 microns. These wavelengths are about 200 times longer than those of the light we see with our eyes! The new, large telescope of Herschel allows us - for the first time - to take sharp images in this very special light, which is ideally suited to discover and investigate regions where stars a being formed, look down to the very obscured cores of galaxies, which, like M51, often contain super-massive black hole and to study the history of mass loss around stars, which is one of the core Herschel research programmes of the Institute of Astronomy of the KULeuven.

    These images, produced from the very first test observation, lead scientists to conclude that the optical performance of Herschel and its large telescope is so far meeting their high expectations.

    During the next few months, the KULeuven PACS instrument team continues the commissioning and the performance verification of the instrument together with their consortium colleagues from Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Austria.

    PACS has been designed and built by a consortium of institutes and university departments from across Europe under the leadership of Principal Investigator Albrecht Poglitsch located at the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. Consortium members are: Austria: UVIE; Belgium: IMEC, KUL, CSL; France: CEA, OAMP; Germany: MPE, MPIA; Italy: IFSI, OAP/AOT, OAA/CAISMI, LENS, SISSA; Spain: IAC; Hungary: Konkoly; USA: NHSC.

    Far-infrared colour image of the "Whirlpool Galaxy" M51. Red, green and blue colours in this image correspond to the 160 microns, 100microns and 70microns wavelength bands of the Herschel/PACS instrument. At these wavelengths we see the glowing light from clouds of dust and gas around and between the stars. These clouds provide the reservoir of raw materials for the ongoing star formation in this galaxy. Blue colours indicate regions of warm dust that is heated by nearby young stars, while the colder dust in other parts of M51 shows up in red. ©ESA and the PACS consortium.

    Side-by-side comparison of an M51 image taken with the Spitzer Space Observatory and the same image taken with the recently launched Herschel Space Observatory. The obvious advantage of the larger size of the telescope is clearly reflected in the much higher resolution of the image: Herschel reveals structures that cannot be discerned in the Spitzer image. Both images were taken at a wavelength of 160 microns. ©ESA & the PACS consortium (Herschel image) ©NASA/JPL-Caltech / SINGS (Spitzer image)

    The excited PACS team toasts to the success of the sneak preview just after the first data of the first light image have arrived at MPE, Garching.

    A few days before the acquisition of the first image, the lid of the cryostat was opened and the PACS team witnessed the first bolometer detector signals from far-infrared photons captured by Herschel's 3.6m telescope. video courtesy of our colleagues at CEA (Saclay, FR)




      Related links
    First light announcement of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer extraterrestrische Physik
    ESA's announcement of the first Herschel-PACS image
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