Data from outer space opens new frontiers for researchers
Herschel, the largest infrared telescope ever launched, is designed to study some of the coldest objects in space, located deep in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum that is still largely unexplored.
Its massive one-piece mirror, which is almost one-and-a-half times larger than Hubble's, is delivering sharper images of the stars with coverage of a wider wavelength spectrum. This new data is providing astronomers with a better understanding of the composition, temperature, density and mass of interstellar gas and dust - the fuel for star formation - in nearby galaxies and star-forming clouds.
"Herschel is creating excitement not only in the scientific community, but the general public as well," says Chris Wilson, a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster University. "We are really entering a golden age for astronomers because, for the first time, we can analyze precise data - that we cannot gather on the ground - from nearby galaxies, which will help interpret observations of more distant galaxies where we can't see such fine spatial detail."
Wilson is the principal researcher on one of the Herschel projects, Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium of Very Nearby Galaxies, which involves a team of scientists from seven countries. They are examining the closest examples of every type of galaxy they can find to study the properties of the gas in the galaxies and determine how the properties of the gas relate to star formation.
"The far-infrared wavelengths probed by Herschel are absolutely crucial for understanding the physical processes and properties of the interstellar medium. This remains poorly understood, but we are getting a clearer picture of the wider environment in galaxies," says Wilson.
Scientists from institutes and universities around the world will be able to use Herschel for approximately four years, at which time it is expected to run out of liquid helium to keep its sensitive instruments cold. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency participated in the construction of Herschel.