The first images from the European Union’s fancy new Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and ahead of schedule no less.

Scientists working with the project have made the announcement with caveats attached, reminding the public that the Herschel and it’s Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer are new tools, and will take some adjusting before they’re properly tuned. Of course, this makes the Observatory’s first glimpses of the Whirlpool Galaxy (that’s M51, if you’re feeling nasty) all the more impressive for being essentially rough drafts. They’ve also provided side by side comparisons of the new Herschel images and images of the same galaxy taken by NASA’a Spitzer space telescope, along with the following statement:

The obvious advantage of the larger size of the telescope is clearly reflected in the much higher resolution of the image: Herschel reveals structures that cannot be discerned in the Spitzer image.

Herschel has certainly earned it’s bragging rights here, having accomplished the difficult task of making what was once a state of the art photograph of the unsurpassed glory of deep space and the majesty of the universe look like a total piece of crap. But it’s hard not to see the statement as a sort of kicking a space agency when it’s down. Pieces are actively falling off the Hubble like my grandmother’s Oldsmobile. This week brought a reminder that the remaining fleet of space shuttles is held together mostly by duct tape, spit and happy thoughts. And American astronauts are faced with the prospect of calling up Russia every time they need a ride to the ISS anytime in the nest five years. With all this taken into consideration, it’s not as if NASA needed another reminder of it’s inadeqacies. But hey, there it is.

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