Herschel/SPIRE Infrared Astronomy Schools Ask an Astronomer Media
His new design allowed William Herschel to build the largest telescope of the day, a record maintained for over 50 years. Unfortunately, the Herschels didn't use this telescope regularly, since the necessary giant structure was awkward and difficult to use. Using their homemade telescopes, the Herschels studied the solar system thoroughly and successfully, studying sunspots, discovering numerous comets and additional moons of Saturn and Uranus. Their gaze also went beyond our sun’s immediate neighborhood, and the stars in our milky way came into focus. Realizing that the Milky Way appears to be approximately equally faint across the sky, William Herschel induced that the Sun must be close to the center of our galaxy.

On this matter he was wrong, and later generations of astronomers assisted by better instruments would correct him. In any case, William Herschel must receive credit for being one of the first to systematically study our Milky Way Galaxy, and to postulate theories about its shape based on his observations.

In one other important respect, William Herschel broke new ground for future astronomers: He was the first to report about infrared radiation from a star, our own sun. When sending sunlight through a prism, thus breaking them down into their primary colors, William Herschel could measure an increase in temperature just beyond the red portion of the light spectrum. He concluded that the sun must give off rays that are not visible but transport heat nonetheless. Today these rays are called ‘infrared light’. Thus the European Space Agency decided to use William Herschel’s name for their infrared space observatory. He was the first astronomer to view an object in the sky in the infrared, and due to the Herschel mission, many astronomers will be able to follow in his footsteps.

William Herschel measures infrared light from the sun - artist's impression.
©IPAC / Coolcosmos


Herschel / SPIRE

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