Researchers at the McMaster University have recently revealed that the new data sets sent back by the Herschel Space Observatory (HSO) are providing them with new windows into the appearance, development and demise of galaxies. The telescope has been especially constructed to analyze regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that have thus far eluded scientific observations. Its instruments are able to scrutinize the deep and cold regions of outer space using very precise infrared wavelengths.
In order to gain this ability, the observatory has been placed in orbit at the L2 Lagrangian point, where it remains in the same relative position, as opposed to the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. It is positioned in such a manner that its instruments point away from the three celestial bodies, and its body blocks all stray sunlight. Combined with the fact that its science payload is cooled to very low temperatures, this allows the HSO to make observations that are well beyond those possible with any other ground- or space-based telescope in the world, including NASA's Hubble and Spitzer.
According to MU experts, the new Hershel observations have enabled them to obtain a new understanding of the composition, temperature, density and mass of interstellar gas and dust, as well as a clearer picture of the stars in the observatory's field of view. The HSO features a massive, one-piece mirror, which is about one and a half times larger than that on Hubble, and enables more precise and detailed observations. Nearby galaxies and star-forming clouds are also scrutinized in greater detail than ever before, as Herschel's main objective is to lead to a deeper understanding of the Universe as a whole.
“Herschel is creating excitement not only in the scientific community, but the general public as well. We are really entering a golden age for astronomy. 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 MU Department of Physics and Astronomy professor Chris Wilson. The observatory is scheduled to continue operations for about four years, before finally running out of the liquid helium coolant that keeps its instruments extremely cold. After that, it may continue observing the Universe. In other, more “common” infrared wavelengths.