Herschel telescope mirror at ESTEC

The largest infrared space telescope

Herschel is the largest infrared space telescope ever launched. With its 3.5-m primary mirror, it is four times bigger than any previous infrared space telescope and almost one and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Herschel's primary mirror is the telescope's light collector. It captures the light from astronomical objects and directs it towards the smaller secondary mirror. The two mirrors work together focusing the light and directing it to the instruments, where the light is detected and analysed, and the results recorded by the onboard computer.

Space telescope comparison
Space telescope comparison

The size of the primary mirror is the key to a telescope's sensitivity: the bigger it is, the more light it collects, and the fainter the objects it sees. It also determines the telescope's ability to distinguish fine details. The surface of the mirror is very important, too. It has to be precisely shaped and perfectly smooth, since the slightest roughness distorts the final image.

The mirror must be light and sturdy to withstand the extreme conditions of launch (when it will be shaken with a force several times that of Earth’s gravity), and the low temperatures of outer space; and any bump on its surface must be less than a thousandth of a millimetre high.

Herschel spacecraft

This technological marvel has been constructed almost entirely of silicon carbide. The primary mirror has been made out of 12 segments brazed together to form a monolithic mirror which was machined and polished to the required thickness (about 3 mm), shape, and surface accuracy.

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