The Herschel Space Observatory has been observing the sky at infrared wavelengths since shortly after its launch two years ago, on 14th May 2009. But the name Herschel has a much longer legacy than that. The observatory is named after Sir William Herschel, a leading astronomer, for discovering infrared light around two hundred years ago. The Herschel family was a particularly astronomical one, with both his sister, Caroline, and son, John, playing important roles in the history of astronomy.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in Germany in 1738, William moved to England aged 19, and became one of the leading astronomers of his time. In 1800, he discovered infrared light, which has wavelengths longer than visible light that we see. Herschel was also a very accomplished telescope builder, and spent much of his time systematically observing the sky looking for double stars and nebulae. Working from his home in Bath in 1781, one of Williams most famous discoveries was the planet Uranus. He gained favour from King George III by trying to name it the Georgian Star, though the name didnt stick. The favour did, however, and he was appointed The Kings Astronomer in 1782.
Today, the Herschel Space Observatory is still making use of the planet Uranus. The extensive study of our Suns seventh planet means that it is very well understood. Herschels SPIRE instrument regularly observes Uranus so that astronomers can calibrate other measurements against the well-known brightness of Uranus.
Professor Bruce Swinyard, from University College London, said Uranus was one of the first objects we observed with SPIRE, being imaged shortly after the lid over the instruments was opened. One of the reasons Uranus is particularly useful is that its spectrum is very smooth and well understood at our wavelengths, making it an ideal standard to compare other measurements to.
Uranus is too small for the Herschel satellite to see as more than a very bright point of light. In the background of the image are dozens of faint fuzzy blobs, each one a distant galaxy. This is an excellent illustration of Herschels power, as the faint galaxies are typically ten thousand times fainter than the much closer planet Uranus.
Caroline Herschel worked closely with William, and was one of the first female astronomers. She made many discoveries of her own, including a number of comets which bear her name. When she was awarded a £50 annual stipend by King George III, Caroline became the first woman to have an official government appointment. After William's death in 1822, Caroline moved back to Germany and completed his catalogue of nebulae. In recognition of her astronomical work, she was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society. The Herschel catalogue of more than 2000 objects formed the basis of the astronomical catalogue which is still used today.
Comets have been important throughout history, and remain so today. They are icy snowballs which were formed at the same time the planets nearly 5 billion years ago. Detailed studies of comets shed light on what the Solar System early in its history, and provide hints as to how the Earth has changed since its formation. While the Herschel Space Observatory isnt observing any of Carolines cometary discoveries, most of which whizzed past Earth and left the Solar System, it has observed a number of others.
Fittingly, the Herschel satellite observes in a very similar way to the technique used by William and Caroline Herschel themselves it methodically and systematically scans the sky recording exactly what is seen over large areas of the heavens. It is the ends of these scans which give the jagged appearance to the Herschel images.
The family connection to the work of the Herschel satellite doesnt end with Caroline. Williams son, Sir John Herschel, was also an astronomer, and added thousands more objects to the catalogue compiled by William and Caroline. He discovered that many of the bright stars in the sky are located in a band which is tilted relative to the disc of stars that makes up most of our Galaxy. It was an American astronomer, Benjamin Gould, who established that there was a full ring around the sky. Now known as the Gould Belt, it contains most of the nearby star forming regions, such as the Orion Nebula, and it provides us with a panoramic view of how stars like the Sun are still forming in the Milky Way today.
The far-infrared light measured by the Herschel Space Observatory makes it the ideal instrument for studying star formation, and the Gould Belt is one of its main targets. Using Herschel, Astronomers have mapped star formation in many areas of the Gould Belt, from the Southern Cross to Cygnus, the Swan.
Those of us working on the Herschel Space Observatory think it's very well named, said Professor Matt Griffin, from Cardiff University and lead scientist of the SPIRE mission. It follows in the footsteps of William and Caroline Herschel in surveying the heavens, and it uses the planet that William Herschel discovered as a standard source. Not only that, our cameras on board the satellite actually use a basic technique used by William Herschel himself to measure the infrared light. Two centuries on, I think William and Caroline would be intrigued and certainly quite pleased to see how what they started has developed.
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