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ESA to Put the Largest Space Telescope Into Orbit

The European Space Agency offered a preview look Thursday at its powerful Herschel, which, when launched next year, will be the largest space telescope yet put into orbit.

And, get this, it's pretty, too.

A far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelength facility, Herschel will deepen the data being collected by the ESA's older Infrared Space Observatory, along with the U.S. Spitzer telescope, and Japan's Akari, looking at areas of the spectrum that have yet to be studied in this manner.

Infrared observations are particularly good for peering into the hearts of interstellar dust clouds and the centers of galaxies, able to tease out cool objects such as tiny stars and molecular clouds which emit little if any visible light. This will help scientists understand the process of star formation, the creation and evolution of galaxies, and possibly even provide clues about organic molecules such as those found in the atmospheres of comets.

Slated for launch in French Guiana next July, Herschel will share rocket space with a smaller cousin, Planck, which will be studying the background radiation left behind by the Big Bang, with an eye towards determining whether and how fast the universe is indeed expanding, and whether that's likely to last.

Both will ultimately reach their permanent homes at a stable orbit about 932,000 miles away from the Earth, or four times farther away than the moon at its most distant point

Science history buffs will recognize the name of William Herschel, who discovered Uranus and the existence of infrared radiation, among his other considerable achievements.

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