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Observations of infrared light are crucial to our understanding of the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. Infrared observations are unique since young stars are born enshrouded in cocoons of dust, which are invisible to standard optical telescopes.

Herschel -10-320At 3.5 metres, Herschel's mirror is the largest ever built for a space telescope mission. The bigger the telescope mirror, the more light it collects. Big mirrors mean that we can see fainter objects and distinguish fine details. Credit: ESA

As the largest infrared telescope ever launched, the Herschel Space Observatory is revolutionising our understanding of the universe. It produces the most detailed infrared images ever made, from its home 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth. This exhibit uses the latest results from the telescope to show how the infrared is different from normal light and why it is so important for astronomy and astrophysics.

How it works

Our view of the formation of stars and planets is often obscured by clouds of gas and dust. This material absorbs the starlight, and obscures the background from view by normal optical telescopes. The gas and dust are warmed when they absorb the starlight, but they still remain at temperatures around 50K (-220oC) or below. Such cold temperatures mean that special infrared telescopes, sensitive to wavelengths hundreds of times longer than optical light, have to be used.

To avoid the Earth's atmosphere, and the far-infrared "glow" of the Earth itself, Herschel is orbiting at a point 1.5 million kilometres away. Its very large 3.5m mirror and incredibly sensitive detectors give it an unprecedented ability to observe stars forming in our galaxy, young galaxies in the distant universe, and even the formation of planetary systems. Herschel is testing our current theories to their limits and is breaking new ground. It has observed the formation of incredibly massive stars that cannot currently be explained. Its views of the very distant universe explain how "normal" galaxies like our own Milky Way have formed and evolved over billions of years.

Games and more information on this exhibit

Ever wanted X-ray specs or super-human vision? Chromoscope lets you explore our Galaxy (the Milky Way) and the distant Universe in a range of wavelengths from gamma-rays to the longest radio waves.

One of the key objectives for the Herschel Space Observatory is to discover the most distant galaxies in the Universe. We do this by making deep maps with our 3 cameras and then combining the images to make a 3-colour image. Objects are colour-coded as blue-nearby, greenish-yellow at intermediate distance and the very red ones as being the most distant galaxies.

In this game we simulate what astronomers have to do to find these distant galaxies.

The image in the game is one of the most deepest images of the Universe taken by the SPIRE cameras on Herschel (Its called the GOODS-North field and is the same location as the Hubble Deep Field).
The objective of the game is to try and find the most distant objects by clicking on the image map at the positions of where you think they are (remember red is distant, blue is nearby).

Clicking on a distant galaxy scores more points than nearby galaxies and the really distant ones get you a 2x bonus score. Clicking on consecutive distant galaxies gets you an increasing chain of bonus points and can get you a high score. You have 30 seconds to discover new distant galaxies.

Visit the Facebook page for To infrared and beyond - with Herschel.

Lead image: Andromeda Galaxy Stars that were and will be: The Herschel and ESA's XMM-Newton satellite took images of our Galaxy's nearest large neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy. While Herschel shows the cool and cold dust that shines because it is heated by the massive young stars that are forming within the dust clouds, XMM-Newton shows the endpoints of stellar evolution: on the one hand shock waves and ejected material in supernovae remnants, and on the other hand massive objects often in close binary systems. The combined image provides us with the life story of stars from their birth to their death throes. Credit: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/PACS/HELGA ; ESA/XMM/EPIC/OM