Last week a big conference took place at the European Space Agency hub ESTEC, down the road in Noordwijk. The town was inundated with the lucky scientists who got to play with the first data from the new infrared space observatory Herschel and were finally allowed to talk about it to the rest of the world. And now that the conference is over, as expected, science from Herschel is everywhere!
The Herschel telescope is sensitive to a relatively unexplored part of the wavelength spectrum – the bit that stretches from the “traditional” infrared range around 50 microns to the “traditional” submillimetre, around 650 microns. The infrared is usually treated as an extension of the optical, and submillimetre “belongs” to the radio, with a fair divide between the two. The submillimetre regime in particular, despite huge advances in the last decade, has suffered from an inferiority complex over its poor PR-skills and general blobbiness. With Herschel now bridging this divide with its huge 3.5-m primary mirror, the largest ever launched into space, far-infrared and submillimetre astronomy are suddenly being blasted to the forefront of the subject – and the images are worthy of the front-page fawning we usually reserve for those produced by Hubble.
What’s also amazing about Herschel’s wavelength coverage is that it’s sensitive to exactly the material that we can’t see with optical or near-IR telescopes: the cold dusty and molecular stuff. So many of the dark bits from previous images are now coming out of the shadows. The fantastic new images show that the cold dark stuff is just as complex and bizarre as the bright hot stuff. ESA have set up a dedicated webpage to share pretty Herschel pictures called OSHI – check it out here. Many press releases on Herschel’s first results are here.
Today a first batch of papers was posted to astro-ph that have been accepted for publication in an edition of Astronomy & Astrophysics that’s dedicated to the first results from Herschel. There are plenty of new findings to discuss and I look forward to learning lots from the new Herschel results.
Image: ESA and the SPIRE & PACS consortia, Ph. André (CEA Saclay) for the Gould’s Belt Key Programme Consortia