More new images from Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and you can check out the whole spread at their website here. They aren’t as impressive as the last composite of the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy, but for images that still represent rough drafts of the data we can eventually hope to see after the equipment on board the probe is fully calibrated, they’re exceptionally promising.

Though something less than breathtaking aesthetically, these shots do give Herschel a chance to flex it’s analytical muscle. Each image is more than just a still photo of celestial objects like the Cat’s Eye Nebula. The observatory also provides important data on their physical properties and chemical composition by taking photos of objects at specific wavelengths.

A recent Twitter post alluding to failed activities and urgent re-planning aside, calibration on Herschel seems to be going swimmingly, with results so far exceeding researchers expectations. Scientists at the European Space Agency are sanguine that they will have the observatory running at full speed shortly, and hope to have new scientific results courtesy of the data the craft will provide before the end of 2009.

The final drafts of the inaugural images from the ESA’s Herschel Space Telescope have arrived, and if you thought that the early photographs of the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy were impressive – and they were, really – then you ain’t seen nothing yet. I mean just wow. Well, see for yourself.

For reference, the red parts are where new stars are being born. Neat, huh?

If just the preliminary images from a few days back were enough to turn NASA officials green with envy, then these must be setting off the sort of nerd conniption fits that send pocket protectors flying all over Cape Canaveral.

But NASA and the ESA could at least join in mourning together today, as both said a final farewell to an old friend this morning when the radio contact with the Ulysses probe was cut. Though it’s 18 year mission comes to an end today, the venerable solar research probe will continue orbiting the sun in a cold and solitary ellipse until the end of time. I don’t know if anyone out there is capable of shedding a tear for a space probe, but if you can, now would be the time.

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.