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Seeing the galaxy in a new light

06 October 2009

In this SPIRE image the blue colour denotes emission at 250 microns, green 350 microns, and red 500 microns.  The colour-coding differentiates material that is extremely cold (red) from that which is warmer.In this SPIRE image the blue colour denotes emission at 250 microns, green 350 microns, and red 500 microns. The colour-coding differentiates material that is extremely cold (red) from that which is warmer.

A major European space mission using high-tech equipment developed by University experts has unveiled images of the Milky Way Galaxy, never seen before.

On board the Herschel Space Observatory is the SPIRE instrument, developed by an international consortium of 18 institutes in eight countries, and led by Professor Matt Griffin, School of Physics and Astronomy.

Herschel carries the largest space telescope ever launched. Its 3.5 m-diameter mirror gives astronomers their best view yet of the Universe at far-infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths.

Professor Matt Griffin, School of Physics and Astronomy and SPIRE Principal Investigator, said: "We had high hopes for this kind of observation with Herschel, using cameras to see the galaxy as never before.

"It’s great to see that the observations work so well from a technical point of view, and that the scientific results are so spectacular. It appears that star formation in the galaxy is a very turbulent process."

In this image, cyan denotes 70 micron emission and the red shows emission at 160 microns.In this image, cyan denotes 70 micron emission and the red shows emission at 160 microns.

The SPIRE camera responds to light at wavelengths between 250 and 500 microns (millionths of a metre) - 500-1000 times longer than the wavelength of visible light.

Together with other cameras on board they provide detailed images in five different far infrared colours, not only revealing new material in the Galaxy, but providing astronomers with a wealth of information about it - such as how much material there is, its mass, temperature and composition, and whether or not some of it is collapsing to form new stars.

Stars form in cold, dense environments, and the composite images locate the star-forming regions that would be very difficult to isolate from a map made at a single far-infrared or submillimetre wavelength.

SPIRE images have been combined into a single composite; here the blue denotes 70 microns, the green 160 microns, and the red is the combination of the emission from all three SPIRE bands at 250/350/500 microns.SPIRE images have been combined into a single composite; here the blue denotes 70 microns, the green 160 microns, and the red is the combination of the emission from all three SPIRE bands at 250/350/500 microns.

Professor Derek Ward-Thompson, School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "The wealth of detail that is visible in these images is quite simply stunning. We are getting a view of the interstellar medium such as we have never seen before. This will help us to unravel the mysteries of star formation in a way that has never been previously possible. Herschel is certainly living up to all of our expectations."

The instruments have imaged an area of about 2 x 2 degrees (about 16 times as big as the size of the Moon as seen from Earth), revealing an extremely rich reservoir of cold material in the Galactic Plane which is seen to be in a previously unsuspected state of turmoil. The interstellar material is condensing in a continuous and interconnected maze of filaments and strings of newly forming stars in all stages of development, unveiling a tireless Galaxy constantly forging new generations of stars.

Dr Pete Hargrave, who led the University team that helped build the SPIRE instrument, said: "I am staggered by the beauty of these images. We can see, in exquisite detail, the material from which stars are born. The fact that SPIRE is working so well is testament to the expertise and years of hard work put in by the instrument teams. We’re all pretty chuffed!"

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