Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Herschel space telescope captures birth of stars

Southern cross (ESA)

The European Space Agency (Esa) has released stunning new pictures from the recently launched Herschel telescope.

The pictures show star formation, and have been described as among the most important images obtained from space for decades.

Astronomers hope that, by analysing these images, they will be able to answer questions about how stars and galaxies are made.

Herschel is the largest astronomical telescope ever to be put into space.

It has captured images of previously invisible stardust. This is the stuff that galaxies, stars, planets and all life is made from, and scientists are studying it to follow the life cycle of the cosmos.

Wisy stardust clouds (ESA)
The vacuum of space is full of wispy clouds of stardust

Bruce Swinyard, from the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, is a member of the research team that designed Herschel's Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (Spire), one of the three scientific instruments that is providing the telescope's "eyes".

These three detectors allow Herschel to see far-infrared and sub-millimetre (radio) wavelengths of light, allowing it to peer through clouds of dust and gas and to see stars as they are born.

This capability also enables Herschel to look deep into space, to look at galaxies that thrived when the Universe was roughly a half to a fifth of its present age. This is a period in cosmic history when it is thought star formation was at its most prolific.

Telescope captures birth of stars

Professor Swinyard explained that by looking at "young galaxies", Herschel would be able to reveal some of the history of star formation.

He said that the thousands of galaxies the telescope had detected would enable researchers to test models of galaxy formation, and to uncover the chemical processes that make stardust.

One of the pictures shows that the vacuum of space is actually full of stardust.

Astronomers will continue to study the images, which have already shown that the mechanisms of the cosmos may be more diverse and complex than current theory suggests.

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