BY DR EMILY BALDWIN
Posted: 22 June, 2009
Herschel takes its first image of the Whirlpool galaxy, M51. Image: ESA & the PACS Consortium.
The telescope tested its ability by imaging the spiral galaxy in three colours using its Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS). M51 was first observed by Charles Messier in 1773 and was the first galaxy discovered to harbour a spiral structure. It lies about 35 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici.
Far-infrared image of M51 at three different wavelengths, taken by the Herschel Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer. These images clearly demonstrate that the shorter the wavelength, the sharper the image — this is a very important message about the quality of Herschel’s optics, since PACS observes at Herschel’s shortest wavelengths. Image: ESA & the PACs Consortium.
Herschel launched just one month ago and is the largest infrared space telescope ever flown. Its instruments are still being commissioned but engineers and scientists executed this daring test observation immediately after the telescope’s cryocover was opened to provide a glimpse of the great things to come. The cover had been protecting the telescope’s instrument chiller, or cryostat, but after launch the telescope was kept warm to prevent the build up of ice. Once the telescope had cooled down, the cover could be removed, allowing light to fall on Herschel’s instruments for the first time.
Comparison of M51 imaged with the Spitzer Space Telescope (left) and an image of the same galaxy taken with Herschel (right). Both images were taken at 160 microns and demonstrate that Herschel will be able to resolve detail that Spitzer could not. Image: Left: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SINGS; Right: ESA and the PACS Consortium.
Herschel is already well on its way to an orbit around the L2 point 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, where it will begin exploring the birth of stars and galaxies in our Universe in the infrared.
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