Human Journey

Herschel Space Observatory Running On Empty

After three years of scouring the universe for evidence of the most distant galaxies, the Herschel Space Observatory is running out of fuel.

The European Space Agency launched the craft in 2009 with some of the most advanced light-sensing equipment ever developed. Only when it got above Earth’s clouds would Herschel be able to peer into deep space, up to 10 billion light years away.

The module was named after William Heschel, who discovered Uranus back in 1781, in hopes that new technology to see past interference like dust, asteroids and clouds, might yield some clues about the far reaches of the universe.

Over those three years, Herschel has radioed back some astounding data. From millions of miles away, it could spot molecular oxygen in the Orion star cluster . Several months later, it helped crystallize scientists’ long-held views that Earth’s water likely came from comets.

Unlike the Voyager spacecraft, which have spent their lives traveling away from Earth, Herschel sat still, held in place between the Earth and Sun’s gravity about 1.6 million kilometers (990,000 miles) away. It launched with 2,160 liters (570 gallons) of liquid helium to cool its on-board computers, which run mostly on solar power. Now, European scientists expect the helium tank to run dry in March, causing the equipment to overheat and skew infrared data coming in.

At the end of it’s useful life, Herschel’s story isn’t such bad news. Steve Eales, an astronomer at the University of Cardiff in Wales, has spent months following Herschel’s data, once turning up evidence of 7,000 new galaxies in just 16 hours. Even when Heschel’s fuel tank runs dry, Eales and his colleagues likely have enough data to keep making new discoveries about the universe long into the future.


Correction: An earlier version of this story said the University of Cardiff was in England. It is, in fact, in Wales. We regret the error.

  • Andrew Planet

    Interplanetary and future deep space exploration entails engaging in technological systems operating outside the relatively very short term periods that revolve together within the confines of a solar day. Taking the latter into account and the fact of limited resources from which to fund further construction of succeeding space vehicles, long term duration of missions increases the amount of factual data that can be gathered. Costs in space exploration would drastically drop if all vehicles other than those made to impact with celestial bodies, or purely solar power dependant, were produced with replenishing capabilities. Technological evolution quickly out paces the life of any space vehicle by the increased output of present day novel invention, catalysed by its own success at efficiency and rendering more for the same investment. Unfortunately, it is not economically viable to totally replace a space vehicle with technology that has materialised a few years after its despatching on a designated goal because the costs are astronomical, even though our species would wish otherwise. If the primary objective in space exploration is to acquire increased amounts of data to explore further afield, relative to being able to fund the whole thing, priority ought to be awarded to increasing technological life span. If the Herschel Space Observatory had been built with the capability of being replenished by helium its life span would have automatically increased. Fuel or helium replenishing space vehicles would be greatly smaller that the larger vehicles they would serve therefore relatively quite low in cost, much lower than replacing the whole thing. On another note, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath is a small cosy museum and I was very well attended by the very informative staff that worked there. I’d recommend it to anyone to visit.

  • wilfred

    so, what will be done to this space machine that is already running out of fuel if it evantually runs out of fuel???

  • Ian Cook

    is there any potential to be able to Re-fuel these types of crafts in the future?

  • Liam Thomas

    Cardiff University is not in England. It is in Wales. Not so clued up on your geography are you national geographic!

  • Dan Stone

    Correct you are, Liam. Error was ours. We’re lucky to have eagle-eyed readers like you.


  • ufehws

    Hi i love national geo…a lot!

  • Fred Bosick

    It’s not running out of fuel, but coolant. The liquid helium cools the imaging chips, not the computers. And it it won’t burn up once the helium is gone, it’s that the cameras just won’t work as well.

    The cameras take pictures in the same frequency as ordinary heat. That’s why the chips are cooled. It’s like the difference between looking out on a sunny day with a hat and without.

  • kelly

    very interesting these issues I am a fan of science and ♥

  • kelly

    very interesting these issues I am a fan of science and

  • chandrakanth

    i did not understood nothing.

  • Mitchell Annand

    I’m assuming with developments like the Space-X craft future artificial satellites would have the capability to be refueled?

  • Nicole

    I like using National Geographic for reports, it has great, reliable info. this article was very interesting!!

  • Freak187

    For the long term of space exploreation I belive we as a race need to invest some few resources to makeing an intersteller platform dropper to deploy raw matierals collectors on some moons or planets that have surface deposits, they in turn can send some of this back to earth orbit aswell as using some to make other platforms to send to other main sites. Because lets face it there is some areas of the solar system where there is plenty of liquid metals aswell as liquid methayne on either one of the moons of Saturn or Jupiter. Actually I think it may be Triton. Either way we all need to think of the future of our home and the fact that we can’t just keep mining our homeworld or we won’t have a place to live even sooner than would happen naturally. Also we need to get up and moving to make other colonies elsewhere in safe areas far enough from earth so we all have more than one refuge!

  • Freak187

    It would also be a good idea if we could setup a network of sensors throughout the system to help us monitor any incoming objects that may help better predict what affects they might have. and they can always be used for other exploration!

  • brad

    What happens when we run out of Helium on Earth?

  • corners

    “What happens when we run out of Helium on Earth?”

    If we ever started using thorium salt breeder reactors instead of thew dangerous uranium reactors we use now we would have more than enough helium to go around forever.

  • mark antony

    I am very interested in these space news, because I think there is a lot that we still don’t know. Hope one day these machines will tell us more about the stars.

  • eagle eye read

    “From millions of miles away, it could spot molecular oxygen in the Orion star cluster”.
    This is flat out wrong. Try billion or trillion. Cursory look on wikipedia shows that Orion nebula is approximately 1300 light years away, which means almost 7.6X10^15. Hardly millions of miles. A typical scientifc writer should be smart enough to know that scale of millions of miles means nothing while talking about distant galaxies….

  • Morris Kiilu Mutungi

    Lets get more replenishing solutions to our space ships than focusing on total abandonment 2the already existing crafts to more digitalised and multi-use fuel consumptors. Does it mean that helium has no substitute?

  • shila

    I am big fan of your chenal ….. and i lgke watch news………….

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