In the June issue of Prospect, Stephen Eales reported from inside command HQ on the nerve-wracking launch of two giant telescopes on the Ariane 5 space rocket. Stephen is leading two of the surveys that one of the telescopes, Herschel, is hoping to carry out. If successful, the mission could help solve some of the deepest questions about how stars and galaxies are formed, and why the universe expanded so rapidly after the first split second of the big bang.
He has been updating us on the progress of the Herschel project since its launch. This is his latest dispatch:
Launch+32 days: Tomorrow I am going to a Herschel meeting in Paris. The Herschel project has involved hundreds of meetings and probably thousands of telephone conference calls, many of which were a waste of time, but this time, with a working telescope in place, the meeting is going to be about serious practical matters: we are going to discuss the papers we will write when the first data starts to arrive. I said “working telescope,” but there is one remaining obstacle. The lid still has to come off the telescope, which should be sometime in the next few days. Taking off what is effectively Herschel’s lens cap might seem a rather trivial business, but the lid can’t simply be thrown into space, because space missions now try to avoid litter, and the spring on the lid is rather floppy so as not to put too much stress on the telescope. A YouTube video, now viewed by 64,000 people (why?), of a test of the opening mechanism shows the lid gradually opening and then slowly moving back and almost closing before it finally opens again. Most unconvincing.
Launch+33 days: I checked my email just before my flight and the lid appears to have opened successfully. Or, at least, when the signal to release the lid was sent to the telescope the gyros on the telescope registered a small acceleration and the telescope of the temperature went down slightly. We’ll only know for sure that everything is working when we see something through the telescope.
Launch+34 days: We are sitting at a pavement café in Paris drinking beer after the first day of the meeting. A…