ESA space launch a sucess


The launch of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) two satellites Herschel and Planck went ahead this afternoon without a hitch.

Both observatories, which have substantial Irish involvement, were launched on board an Ariane 5 rocket at precisely 2.12pm from the ESA Spaceport in French Guyana, South America.

Herschel, the larger of the two missions, separated from the upper stage of the rocket 25 minutes after launch. It was followed three minutes later by Planck. Nine minutes later both sent their first signals to Earth indicating that they had survived the launch and had separated successfully.

The two missions have cost nearly €2 billion and have been 15 years in the planning.

The successful launch was greeted with jubilation at the Herschel Science Operations Centre in Madrid where data from Herschel will be processed.

It is headed up by Leo Metcalfe from Bray and his deputy is Laurence O’Rourke who is from Killucan, Co Westmeath.

Mr O’Rourke said: “Watching a launch is always exciting, but with a satellite you work on, it makes it nerve racking. It really was great though to have followed the launch, see both satellites separated from the launcher and then being acquired successfully by the ground stations.

“Now the work really begins for the science operations team here at the European Space Astronomy Centre and I, Leo and the team are happy to say that we are looking forward to it. It's a great day for European science in this, the International Year of Astronomy, and I'm delighted to be working on such an amazing mission.”

Staff from the Advanced Experimental Physics Department at NUI Maynooth uncorked a bottle of specially-commissioned Planck wine following the successful launch.

NUI Maynooth has created a niche for itself in the development of optical instrument for looking through the far infrared.

Scientists there have been involved for more than a decade in the development of Herschel’s HIFI (Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared), a high-resolution spectrometer which will look for the signatures of elements such as carbon and oxygen in star-forming regions along with the presence of water.

Professor Anthony Murphy said: “It was a tense moment before hand, but it was fantastic to see the launch was a success and see it on its way.

“There was another tense moment when the two satellites separated. That was the trickiest part of the mission. We knew then that the launch was complete. The initial critical moments are over.”

Herschel is the biggest space telescope ever launched and will be able to see into the far infrared. Currently our views of many galaxies are obscured by clouds of gas which Herschel will be able to see through.

Scientists are hoping that Herschel will see further back in time than any instrument to date and give us clues as to how the first stars and galaxies formed at the start of the universe.

NUI Maynooth has also been involved in testing the High Frequency Instrument (HFI) on Planck. It will look at the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), the remnants left over from the Big Bang.

There is significant other Irish involvement in both projects. Matt Griffin, the prime science instigator on Spire (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver), one of three instruments on board Herschel, is also Irish as is Dominic Doyle who is one of the engineers charged with ensuring that all the instruments on board both satellites have been verified and tested.

A number of Irish companies involved, including Captech in Malahide and Farran Technologies in Co Cork, have also been involved in designing instruments for Herschel and Planck.