World's Largest Infrared Space Telescope Shuts Down Forever

The Herschel infrared space observatory is the largest and most powerful of its kind ever launched into space.
This artist's illustration shows the European Space Agency's infrared Herschel Space Obsevatory set against a background image of the Vela C star-forming region. The space telescope launched in 2009 and ended its mission in 2013. (Image credit: ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortia, T. Hill, F. Motte, Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, CEA/IRFU – CNRS/INSU – Uni. Paris Diderot, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium)

After nearly four years mapping the "hidden universe," the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space has reached the end of its life, European Space Agency officials say.

The $1.4 billion Herschel Space Observatory has exhausted the vital supply of liquid helium coolant that allowed it make the most sensitive and detailed observations of the cosmos in infrared light, ESA officials announced Monday (April 29).

The infrared space telescope's official end was recorded by a ground station in Australia, which recorded an increase in temperature for all of the spacecraft's instruments during the telescope's daily communications session. It began its mission in May 2009. [Amazing Photos from the Herschel Space Telescope]

"Herschel has offered us a new view of the hitherto hidden universe, pointing us to a previously unseen process of star birth and galaxy formation, and allowing us to trace water through the universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and their planet-forming discs and belts of comets," ESA's Herschel project scientist Göran Pilbratt said in a statement.

Named for famed 18th century astronomer William Herschel, the space telescope was the most powerful infrared observatory ever launched to space until it stopped functioning this week. It has a main mirror 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) across nearly 1.5 times larger than Hubble Space Telescope, and was designed to chart the universe in the far-infrared to sub-millimeter wavelengths of light.

"Herschel gave us the opportunity to peer into the dark and cold regions of the universe that are invisible to other telescopes," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science missions. The U.S. space agency was a partner with ESA in the Herschel mission.

The Herschel space observatory is responsible for some amazing images of far-off cosmic wonders, such as its dazzling views of the Eagle Nebula and Andromeda Galaxy. Its helium-cooled instruments allowed astronomers to study far away starburst galaxies and star formation closer to home in the Milky Way. The coolant kept Herschel's instruments chilled to a temperature of minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 271 degrees Celsius), but that supply was expected to evaporate over time.

"It feels like losing a member of the family," Herschel mission officials wrote in Twitter post at the mission's end. "Almost 4 incredibly intense years in space."

ESA Herschel space observatory image of Andromeda (M31) using both PACS and SPIRE instruments to observe at infrared wavelengths of 70 mm (blue), 100 mm (green) and 160 mm and 250 mm combined (red). Image released Jan. 28, 2013. (Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, O. Krause, HSC, H. Linz)

The Herschel observatory collected more than 35,000 scientific observations and 25,000 hours of data. According to ESA officials, that plethora of data will be Herschel's main contribution to the world of science.

"The archive will become the legacy of the mission," ESA officials explained in a statement. "It is expected to provide even more discoveries than have been made during the lifetime of the Herschel mission."

NASA scientists said the Herschel mission's effect on astronomy will far outlast the four-year mission itself.

"Herschel has improved our understanding of how new stars and planets form, but has also raised many new questions," said Paul Goldsmith, NASA Herschel project scientist at JPL, said in a statement. "Astronomers will be following up on Herschel's discoveries with ground-based and future space-based observatories for years to come."

The space telescope has also paved the way for future missions focused on observing the universe in infrared wavelengths, ESA officials added.

"The mission resulted in a number of technological advancements applicable to future space missions and potential spin-off technologies," ESA officials said. "The mission saw the development of advanced cryogenic systems, the construction of the largest telescope mirror ever flown in space, and the utilization of the most sensitive direct detectors for light in the far-infrared to millimeter range."

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined as a Staff Writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also served as's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.