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 57-670 μm range. The key science objectives emphasize current questions connected to the formation of galaxies and stars, however, having unique capabilities in several ways, Herschel will be a facility available to the entire astronomical community. Herschel will be equipped with a 3.5 metre diameter passively cooled telescope. The science payload complement - two cameras/medium resolution spectrometers (PACS and SPIRE) and a very high resolution heterodyne spectrometer (HIFI) - will be housed in a superfluid helium cryostat. The ground segment will be jointly developed by the ESA, the three instrument teams, 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 (shared with the ESA cosmic background mapping mission Planck) in 2007. Once operational Herschel will offer a minimum of 3 years of routine observations; roughly 2/3 of the available observing time is open to the general astronomical community through a standard competitive proposal procedure.