I was on my way back from the ACR News Awards last week an item on the radio caught my attention: the Herschel space telescope was soon to cease functioning due to losing its refrigerant.
My immediate thought was that even space rockets suffer with refrigerant containment issues; however it seems that it is nothing of the sort.
The billion-euro telescope employs special deflectors that need to be cooled to amazingly low temperatures (close to absolute zero). This is achieved with the aid of a cooling system run on helium, more than 2,000 litres of which had been loaded onto the telescope at the launch. The cryogen has gradually boiled off and is now close to being depleted.
I always assumed that it was cold in space but obviously it is not cold enough. Without its cooling system, the telescope will go blind before the end of this month.
The impending demise of Herschel is not unexpected due to the scientists and engineers having calculated the loss rate at the planning stage.
The cooling system enabled Herschel to study the processes at play as large clouds of gas and dust collapse to form new stars. Its deep vision has also enabled scientists to trace the story of how galaxies changed through cosmic time.
"I think there is a consensus in the science community that Herschel has been a tremendous success and that we have made many beautiful observations' the project's scientist Dr Gören Pilbratt said.
The next mission is already being planned and prepared for. Interestingly, the cooling system next time will be of a mechanical design and so will have a longer life expectancy.
At the end of the radio item, my thoughts returned to the previous evening at the ACR News Awards and in particular the Alan Moor Award. This very special award recognises the efforts of the 'unsung heros' of the industry; the ones who are not directly in the limelight but who make significant contributions in their own way. Last night's award was presented to a very worthy winner Miriam Rodway, the Secretary of the Institute of Refrigeration. The first female recipient I believe.
Then, in a rather philosophical mood, the telescope's relatively short life reminded me of our own human vulnerability. We are each given a limited period of time and it is up to us what we make of it. We work in an amazing industry that truly does change lives. Herschel is yet another reminder of how cooling technology touches our lives in fantastic ways. Without cooling, our modern life would not be what it is.
There are opportunities to really make a difference to the industry if we accept the challenge and responsibility. Will you be a future recipient of the Alan Moor Award?
19 March 2013 09:33:00