European Space Agency (Esa) has been working for twenty years on the Herschel telescope looking for infra-red light. It is been shipped to Kourou spaceport in South America to be launched to its orbit by an Ariane 5 rocket.
Pretty high it will go - 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.
In the same rocket will also be the Planck telescope that will look for micro-wave radiation.
That launch is going to cause some sleepless nights in Paris. London, Bruxelles, Berlin and elsewhere. Twenty years of work on Herschel plus the Planck with a joint value of 1.7 billion Euro.
One point seven billion Euro.
Just to study radiation from the Big Bang (and some other stuff of interest to astronomers)
Hubble is looking at visible light.
Herschel will be looking at infra-red light that is below the wavelength of our eyes.
Planck will be looking at microwaves.
British astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) discovered infra-red light and the 3.5 meter telescope is named in his honour. Not one spot of dust is allowed in this surface and in the highly accurate instrument for which a distant 60 W electric lamp would be like a burning furnace.
There is a very educational and clear page in BBC web site giving in depth details about the goals and methods of the Herschel project.
Let us think the worst and something blows those huge tanks of highly flammable liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen into smithereens during the launch at Kourou.
On the other hand, let us not even imagine that!
it is really one shot chance and the risks are enormous.
ESA has now informed that the launch planned for May 6 2009 has been postponed because of anomalies in the Ariane 5 rocket. They decided to check it again.