Herschel is the fourth cornerstone mission in the European Space Agency (ESA) science programme. It will perform imaging photometry and spectroscopy in the far infrared and submillimetre part of the spectrum, covering approximately the 55–672 µmm range and thus bridging the traditional space infrared range with the groundbased capabilities.
The key science objectives emphasize fundamental issues connected to the formation and evolution of galaxies and stars and stellar systems. However, Herschel will be an observatory facility and its unique capabilities will be available to the entire astronomical community for a wide range of observations. Herschel is equipped with a passively cooled 3.5 m diameter classical Cassegrain telescope. The science payload complement – two cameras/medium resolution spectrometers (PACS and SPIRE) and a very high resolution heterodyne spectrometer (HIFI) – is housed in a superfluid helium cryostat. The ground segment is jointly developed by the ESA, the three instrument consortia, and NASA/IPAC. Herschel is scheduled to be launched into a transfer trajectory towards its operational orbit around the Earth-Sun L2 point by an Ariane 5 ECA (shared with the ESA cosmic background mapping mission Planck) in 2009. Once operational about half a year after launch, Herschel will offer 3 years of routine science operations. Almost 20 000 hours of observing time will nominally be made available for astronomy, 32% is guaranteed time, the remainder is open time which is offered to the worldwide general astronomical community through a standard competitive proposal procedure.