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MPE Press Release 2010-05-06

Herschel Space Telescope: Successful first year for German researchers

This image of the GOODS-S field with the Herschel PACS instrument demonstrates that the weak cosmic infrared radiation is produced mainly by individual galaxies.
Image: MPE
The space telescope HERSCHEL (artists' impression).
Image: ESA
One year after the launch of ESA's Herschel space telescope, German scientists have reason to celebrate: The instruments' performance and first results have exceeded all expectations. Initial observations with the largest telescope currently in space, which was designed primarily to study the coldest matter in our Universe, have led to new insights into the formation of stars, the properties of dust in distant galaxies and the presence of molecules in interstellar clouds.

It was a launch right out of the textbook: On 14 May 2009, an Ariane-5 rocket carried ESA's Herschel Space Telescope (as well as the satellite observatory Planck) into the skies above French Guyana - an important date especially for German researchers who are responsible for one and heavily involved in a second of the three instruments on board Herschel. Nine of Herschel's 42 "key observing programmes" are led by researchers at German institutes. [1]

Just one month later, Herschel delivered its first images - to the great delight of the astronomers involved in the mission: "Right from the start, Herschel's images - the first shows a spiral galaxy - exceeded all our expectations," says Dr. Albrecht Poglitsch from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, who led the development and construction of PACS, one of Herschel's instruments. Where the Hubble space telescope detects visible light (and nearby wavelengths), Herschel observes objects at far infrared wavelengths. This enables the observatory to see the thermal radiation of cold matter such as cold dust and gas clouds.

Now, one year after launch, Herschel scientists are taking stock of their first results. The space telescope's new insights into the cold Universe are particularly interesting for researchers studying the formation of new stars. With its infrared eyes, Herschel can observe the earliest phases of stellar evolution: matter in gas and dust clouds which has collapsed under its own weight, but which has not yet undergone significant heating (but which will, eventually, heat up and form a new star). Dr. Oliver Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, who leads this observation programme, says: "With its powerful and heat sensitive cameras, Herschel can peer deeper into the hidden birthplaces of stars than ever before." [2] The Herschel spectrometer HIFI in turn took aim at molecular clouds which provide the raw material for star formation. For the first time, the instrument was able to detect the presence of the molecule oxidaniumyl - water that is missing an electron. "This chemical compound has never been seen outside of our solar system before," explains Prof. Dr. Jürgen Stutzki from Cologne University, "but it appears to play a central role for those chemical reactions in interstellar clouds that involve oxygen." [3]

There's also news from outside our galaxy: Wide-field observations with Herschel have shown that the faint infrared radiation that reaches the Earth from all directions is produced by individual galaxies, about 11 billion light years away. This gives astronomers new insights into the evolutionary history of these galaxies [4]. But Herschel has looked even further into deep space: It has observed quasars, the most distant galaxies known, whose light has to travel about 13 billion years before it reaches Earth. In these objects, cold dust was detected for the first time - paving the way for more systematic studies, from which astronomers hope to gain new insights into star formation in the early Universe [5].

Prof. Dr. Thomas Henning from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy sums it up: "Already the first year with Herschel led to fascinating new insights into the cold universe. The careful planning and optimisation of telescope and instruments have more than paid off, and we are curious what the next years will bring."



[2] Instruments: PACS and HIGI, see "further information". More details about the Herschel "Observing Key Programs" can be found on http://herschel.esac.esa.int/Key_Programmes.shtml .

[2] Observing programme "EPOS", Oliver Krause (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) et al.

[3] Joint result of the observing programmes "WADI", Volker Ossenkopf (University of Cologne) et al., "HEXOS", Edwin Bergin (Michigan University, USA) et al., and "CHESS", Cecilia Ceccarelli (Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Grenoble) et al.

[4] Observing programme "PEP", Dieter Lutz (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) et al. The galaxies concerned have a redshift of about z=3. The infrared background radiation should not be confused with the "cosmic (microwave) background".

[5] Observing programme "Dust in the early universe", Klaus Meisenheimer (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) et al. The quasars have a redshift of about z=6.




Hannelore Hämmerle interner Verweis Dr. Hannelore Hämmerle
Press officer
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik, Garching
Tel.: +49 89 30000-3980
E-Mail:   hannelore.haemmerle

Albrecht Poglitsch interner Verweis Dr. Albrecht Poglitsch
Infrared/Submillimetre Astronomy Group
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik
Tel.: +49 89 30000-3293
E-Mail:   alpog

Dieter Lutz interner Verweis Dr. Dieter Lutz
Infrared/Submillimetre Astronomy Group
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik
Tel.: +49 89 30000-3614
E-Mail:   lutz


Further Information

The results described in this release have been presented at the ESA "Herschel First Results Symposium" (4 to 7 May 2010), which brings together some 400 researchers in Nordwijk, the Netherlands. The associated scientific papers are accepted for publication in a Herschel special issue of the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Herschel is a keystone programme of the European Space Agency ESA. The space telescope was launched on 14 May 2009 for a mission of at least 3.5 years.

Herschel is positioned at one of the so called "Lagrange points", 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. At this point, Earth and Sun - powerful emitters of infrared light that Herschel needs to avoid - are both located in the same direction. The space telescope "turns its back" on them and observes in the opposite direction. (For comparison: The Hubble Space Telescope is orbiting Earth just outside the atmosphere at a height of about 575 kilometres.)

Herschel was built by a consortium led by Thales Alenia Space. The German company Astrium (Friedrichshafen) was responsible for the payload. Herschel is currently the largest telescope in space with a mirror diameter of 3.5 metres (Hubble's mirror has a diameter of 2.4 metres.) The telescope is operated by the European Mission Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt. Nine of Herschel's 42 key observing programmes are led by researchers at German institutes.

The three observing instruments of the telescope come from international cooperations:

PACS ("Photodetector Array Camera & Spectrometer") is a combination of an astronomic camera and a spectrometer, which will observe wavelengths between 57 and 210 mm. The instrument was developed and built by a consortium led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, with important contributions by the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg.

HIFI ("Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared"), the most powerful, high-resolution spectrometer ever developed for observations in the far infrared, will take measurements in the frequency range from 500 to 1900 GHz. Its development was led by the Dutch Institute for Space Research. The main German contributions were provided by the I. Physical Institute of the University Cologne, the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg, Lindau. Jürgen Stutzki (University Cologne) coodinates the German instrument contributions to HIFI as Co-PI.

SPIRE ("Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver") can take images in wavelength bands around 250, 350 and 500 mm and spectra between 200 and 670 mm. The combination of camera and spectrometer was built by consortium led by the University Cardiff.

The other astronomical institutes involved in the development receive observing time, which they use, among others, for systematic observing programmes.


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