After four years in orbit, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched Herschel Space Observatory is swiftly approaching its final few weeks of operation, exactly as forecast at the start of its mission.
Back in 2009, the 3.5 metres infrared space telescope was sent to a location 1.5 million kms from the Earth to observe star formation and galaxy evolution. However, the superfluid helium used to cool its detectors have all but run out and so scientists are now busily acquiring as many images as they can before it finally goes blind sometime this month.
One of those stunning images is of the Horsehead Nebula (B33), located 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Orion. Just like the nearby Orion Nebula (M42), stars are actively forming inside this diffuse cloud of dust and gases, making it a prime target for the space telescope.
Commenting on its latest Horsehead Nebula images, Prof Matt Griffin explained: “You can see all the things we look for in Herschel images; the filaments, the bubbles; the wispy material, the reddish material that hasn’t yet actually started to form stars. You can also see nebulosity where material has been lit up from inside by stars; and features like the Horsehead Nebula where that star formation has yet to really get going.”
The Herschel Space Telescope was named after Sir William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus back in 1781. After it ceases to operate, the telescope will be put into a slow drift around the Sun, but the information gathered over its lifetime is expected to keep astronomers busy for years.