|The Herschel Space Observatory, launched earlier this year by the European Space Agency, has the largest mirror ever launched into space.|
PORTLAND, Ore.Water vapor has been detected for the first time in a distant galaxy by the new Herschel Space Observatory, launched earlier this year by the European Space Agency.
According to Chris Wilson, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at McMaster University, the Herschel is the biggest telescope ever launched, enabling the observation of things in the universe that weren't possible before, including, for the first time, water vapor emissions in another galaxy.
The far-infrared spectral lines which Herschel detected in the unmistakable pattern of water (in a galaxy called Arp 220) were made with its most sensitive detector, which operates in the 200-to-600 micron wavelength range. Another ultra-sensitive detector also receives signals from the Herschel mirror, but operates at 60-to-200 microns. A third instrument also received signals from the Herschel mirror and operates over the whole infrared range, but is designed for ultra-high resolution rather than maximum sensitivity.
"We are entering the golden age of astronomy," said Wilson. "Herschel is just the first of several new instruments that are being constructed or planned that will let us see fainter more distant objects as well as get sharper images with higher resolution than ever before."
Wilson is a member of a seven-country cooperative effort to mine Herschel's abundant new data called the Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium of Very Nearby Galaxies. Herschel is specifically designed to aid this effort by using its super-cooled infrared detectors to map out the coldest objects in spaceinterstellar gaseswhich are observed in a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is difficult to image from Earth. Data gathered by Herschel, whose orbit is beyond that of the Moon at Lagrangian point 2, will help understand the composition, temperature, density and mass of interstellar gases, which are the materials from which new stars are formed.
"We are getting a clearer picture of the wider environment around galaxies," said Wilson. "The far-infrared wavelengths probed by Herschel will also help us understand the physical processes and properties of the interstellar medium."
The Herschel Space Observatory's main mirror, which at 3.5 meters (over 11 feet) is 50 percent larger than the Hubble Space Telescope's, is capturing images that are the most detailed ever made. Unfortunately, the crisper, clearer images will not last, since the Herschel Space Observatory is only scheduled to run for four years, after which it will have run out of the liquid helium that super-cools its sensitive instruments.
Over the next four years, the Herschel Space Observatory may help answer many questions about how galaxies form from interstellar gas, how planets form from debris disk left behind after stars form, and how comets, which are mostly made of ice, methane and carbon dioxide, pick up dust on their travels and may even explain the origins of our oceans.
The Canadian Space Agency and NASA also participated in the construction of Herschel.