A scientific instrument package developed in part by the University of Colorado at Boulder for the $2.2 billion orbiting Herschel Space Observatory that was launched in May by the European Space Agency has made its first successful observations, targeting two star-forming galaxies near the Milky Way.
Sporting a 3.5-meter mirror, the Herschel Space Observatory is the largest space telescope ever built and flown. Herschel is about one-and-one-half times the diameter of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The instrument package aboard Herschel that was used for the observations is known as the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, or SPIRE, said CU-Boulder astrophysical and planetary sciences Associate Professor Jason Glenn, a co-investigator on the SPIRE experiment. CU-Boulder will have received nearly $2 million from NASA for the combined support of SPIRE instrument development and science data analysis during the lifetime of the project, said Glenn.
"We are very excited about the first images, which we think are spectacular," said Glenn, also a fellow at CU-Boulder's Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.
Designed to look for emissions from clouds of dust linked to star-forming regions in the Milky Way and other galaxies, SPIRE imaged two galaxies, known as M66 and M74, on June 24. M66 is a barred spiral galaxy -- a galaxy with a bar-shaped center like our own Milky Way -- that is located about 35 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. M74 is a face-on spiral galaxy with well-defined spiral arms located about 30 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces. One light year is the distance light travels in a year -- roughly 6 trillion miles.
Herschel is the first space observatory to make high-resolution images in the sub-millimeter wavelengths, which are longer than visible and infrared light waves but shorter than radio waves, said Glenn. The orbiting telescope will observe the birth and development of galaxies back in time to the early universe some 14 billion years ago.
The SPIRE team will study the physical and chemical processes that take place in the interstellar medium to learn more about how stars are formed from molecular clouds, Glenn said.