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For 4 years, the Herschel space telescope accomplished the amazing feat of observing objects that radiate at temperatures of between –268°C and –223°C, too cold to emit visible light, until it ran out of coolant at the end of April 2013, bringing its mission to an end. Launched in 2009 by the European Space Agency (ESA), Herschel’s mission was to conduct observations of very cold objects emitting at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths (55 to 672 µm), a range of the spectrum that cannot be explored from Earth, in order to study the formation of stars and galaxies and to analyse the chemical composition of atmospheres of planets in our solar system, comets and the interstellar medium. To do this, Herschel had three very-low-temperature instruments: SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver), HIFI (Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared) and PACS (Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer). It also carried a 3.5-m-diameter primary mirror, larger than any previous space telescope.
Herschel is the fourth cornerstone mission of ESA’s mandatory scientific programme. CNES oversaw and funded French research laboratories’ participation in the mission. This participation was significant, as the French atomic energy and alternative energies commission CEA, the LAM astrophysics laboratory in Marseille, the IRM millimetre radioastronomy institute, the CESR space radiation research centre and the Bordeaux Observatory helped to build the HIFI, PACS and SPIRE instruments.