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.
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
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.
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
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 -
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