Image: View of star-forming clouds
ESA / SPIRE and PACS consortia
This composite image of star-forming clouds in the Milky Way was taken by the recently launched Herschel Space Telescope.
updated 10/2/2009 8:39:29 PM ET 2009-10-03T00:39:29

The recently launched Herschel Space Telescope has just returned glowing pictures of our own Milky Way galaxy in infrared light.

The European Space Agency mission (with contributions from NASA) lifted off in May on a quest to observe the universe in long-wavelength infrared light. The telescope used two instruments simultaneously to snap the new Milky Way photos in five different ranges, or "colors," of infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes.

"Herschel's infrared vision lets us sense the feeble heat from some of the coldest objects in the cosmos," said Paul Goldsmith, the project scientist for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The new images, taken during the observatory's testing phase, reveal new details of a region of the Milky Way near the dense plane of the galactic disk. In this region large clouds of gas and dust are giving birth to hordes of new stars.

Much of this region is shrouded in normal ranges of light, but Herschel caught its dim infrared glow, which revealed that this star-forming region is even richer in cold and turbulent material than previously believed.

Gas in the clouds appears to be condensing in a continuous and interconnected maze, with filaments of baby stars visible in all stages of development.

In the color-coded image, blue shows warmer material, red represents cooler matter, and green shows temperatures in between. The coldest dust can be seen in thin stringlike structures.

The images were made by Herschel's photodetector array camera and spectrometer (PACS), as well as its spectral and photometric imaging receiver (SPIRE). Using the instruments simultaneously produces five images at once in different wavelengths. The observations also serve to confirm that the instruments onboard Herschel are working as expected.

"We had high hopes for this kind of observation with Herschel, using the combined power of the two cameras to see the galaxy as never before," said Matt Griffin of Cardiff University, principal investigator for the SPIRE instrument. "It's great to see that the observations work so well from a technical point of view, and that the scientific results are so spectacular. It appears that star formation in the galaxy is a very turbulent process."

Scientists hope that future Herschel data will help shed new light on the history of star formation throughout the universe.

More on Herschel | infrared astronomy

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