ESA space telescope with CU-Boulder connection looks back to early galaxies

December 30, 2009

An instrument package developed in part by the University of Colorado at Boulder for the $2.2 billion orbiting Herschel Space Observatory launched in May by the European Space Agency has provided one of the most detailed views yet of space up to 12 billion years back in time.

The December images have revealed thousands of newly discovered galaxies in their early stages of formation, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Jason Glenn, a co-investigator on the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, or SPIRE instrument, riding aboard Herschel. The new images are being analyzed as part of the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey, or HerMES, which involves more than 100 astronomers from six countries.

Equipped with three cameras including SPIRE, the Herschel Space Observatory was launched in May 2009 from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana. The spacecraft -- about one and one-half times the diameter of the Hubble Space Telescope -- is orbiting nearly 1 million miles from Earth.

Herschel is the first space observatory to make high-resolution images at submillimeter wavelengths, which are longer than visible and infrared light waves and shorter than radio waves. SPIRE was designed to look for emissions from clouds and dust linked to star-forming regions in the Milky Way and beyond, said Glenn. The most recent observations were made in the constellation Ursa Major, which includes the Big Dipper.

CU-Boulder is receiving roughly $2 million from NASA for the combined support of SPIRE instrument development and science data analysis during the lifetime of the orbiting telescope, said Glenn, an associate professor in CU-Boulder's astrophysical and planetary sciences department. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CU-Boulder built essential instrumentation for the telescope used to make the most recent observations, said Glenn, also a member of CU-Boulder's Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.

"The submillimeter sky is absolutely paved with galaxies," Glenn said. The newest images are "amazingly clear and deep," which enables astronomers to detect distant galaxies they would have no chance of discovering with current ground-based telescopes, he said. Since the light being observed with Herschel left the galaxies billions of years ago on its journey toward our solar system, the images are helping to reveal early star formation activity as well as the growth of supermassive black holes in galaxies.

The Herschel team expects to discover hundreds of thousands of new galaxies at very early stages of their formations -- some more than 10 billion years old, he said. A single image from Herschel released in December revealed 10 times as many galaxies as have been seen before by all of the world's telescopes observing the skies in submillimeter wavelengths, said Glenn.

A major goal of the Herschel mission is to discover how early galaxies formed and evolved to give rise to present-day galaxies like our own, he said. Distant galaxies imaged by Herschel are so far away astronomers actually are looking at conditions as early as just over a billion or so years after the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago. The SPIRE camera allows Herschel to detect radiation from very cold and distant objects, such as young stars and evolving galaxies.

The SPIRE team is studying the physical and chemical processes that take place in the distant interstellar medium to learn more about how stars are formed from molecular clouds, Glenn said. The submillimeter colors of the galaxies in the new images reveal information about their temperatures and distances -- bluer galaxies are relatively hotter and nearer, while the redder galaxies are cooler and farther away, he said.

Glenn said CU-Boulder also is partnering on a ground-based telescope project known as the Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope, or CCAT -- slated for completion in 2013 in the Atacama desert of Chile at 18,400 feet in altitude -- which will be able to zoom in on regions imaged by Herschel and isolate individual galaxies with 10 times greater detail. CASA is working to raise roughly $5 million in private capital toward the cost of CCAT, Glenn said.

SPIRE is one of three instruments on Herschel and has both a camera and a spectrometer. Led by the United Kingdom, SPIRE also includes participation by a number of American, Canadian and Chinese institutions. Glenn's group is particularly interested in characterizing the faintest, most distant galaxies, "which will push the orbiting observatory to its limits of sensitivity," he said.

"Herschel is providing a whole new window on the universe," said Glenn. "This project provides a fantastic opportunity for top scientists from around the world to work together to understand how stars and galaxies form and evolve."
For more information on the Herschel Space Observatory, including video and animation, visit To follow the progress of the Herschel Space Observatory on Twitter visit For the most recent information on HerMES visit For more information on CU-Boulder's CASA visit

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Astronomers Articles from Brightsurf:

Astronomers are bulging with data
For the first time, over 250 million stars in our galaxy's bulge have been surveyed in near-ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared light, opening the door for astronomers to reexamine key questions about the Milky Way's formation and history.

Astronomers capture a pulsar 'powering up'
A Monash-University-led collaboration has, for the first time, observed the full, 12-day process of material spiralling into a distant neutron star, triggering an X-ray outburst thousands of times brighter than our Sun.

Astronomers discover new class of cosmic explosions
Analysis of two cosmic explosions indicates to astronomers that the pair, along with a puzzling blast from 2018, constitute a new type of event, with similarities to some supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, but also with significant differences.

Astronomers discover planet that never was
What was thought to be an exoplanet in a nearby star system likely never existed in the first place, according to University of Arizona astronomers.

Canadian astronomers determine Earth's fingerprint
Two McGill University astronomers have assembled a 'fingerprint' for Earth, which could be used to identify a planet beyond our Solar System capable of supporting life.

Astronomers help wage war on cancer
Techniques developed by astronomers could help in the fight against breast and skin cancer.

Astronomers make history in a split second
In a world first, an Australian-led international team of astronomers has determined the precise location of a powerful one-off burst of cosmic radio waves.

Astronomers witness galaxy megamerger
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international team of scientists has uncovered a startlingly dense concentration of 14 galaxies that are poised to merge, forming the core of what will eventually become a colossal galaxy cluster.

Astronomers discover a star that would not die
An international team of astronomers has made a bizarre discovery; a star that refuses to stop shining.

Astronomers spun up by galaxy-shape finding
For the first time astronomers have measured how a galaxy's spin affects its shape -- something scientists have tried to do for 90 years -- using a sample of 845 galaxies.

Read More: Astronomers News and Astronomers Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to