Build it, and the universe will come

November 3, 2012

“I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two million years to reach the earth.”

William Herschel


The Herschel Space Observatory was named for Frederick William Herschel. What did he do to deserve such an honor?

Herschel was an astronomer, but he didn’t set out with that idea. He was a musician and a composer. He played oboe, cello, violin, harpsichord and organ. He composed symphonies, concertos and church music.

His music led him to become interested in mathematics and astronomy. Herschel did such a good job building telescopes that when he looked through them, he saw things no one else had seen. He discovered and recorded hundreds of double and multiple star systems. Eventually, he built a “40-foot telescope”- 40 feet long, that is. Because it used a slightly different design from previous telescopes, it was called the Herschelian telescope.

Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. He catalogued thousands of new objects. Later, Herschel discovered two new moons of Saturn and two new moons of Uranus.

But perhaps his most important discovery is infrared light. Scientists knew that sunlight was composed of light of different wavelengths – or colors – like the colors you can see in a rainbow. But no one thought there was light that humans couldn’t see at all. A prism is a piece of glass that, when sunlight shines through, it is split into all the colors of the rainbow. This is called a spectrum. Herschel discovered that a thermometer held just beyond the red light at the very edge of the spectrum showed a higher temperature than any other part of the spectrum that he could see! He thus discovered infrared – or, beyond red – light!

The Herschel Space Observatory was named for Frederick William Herschel, because it is an infrared telescope. In space, infrared light shines through dusty, gassy clouds that visible light cannot get through.

This article was written by Diane K. Fisher and provided through the courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA.

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