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Greatest hits from Herschel

An infrared image of the Rosette molecular cloud, obtained by the Herschel space

telescope, highlights cosmic cocoons of dust that contain massive protostars.

The European Space Agency’s Herschel space telescope is designed to delve into the old, cold and dusty frontiers of the universe – but there’s nothing old, cold or dusty about the infrared images that the spacecraft is sending back.

Today’s spectacular view of the Rosette molecular cloud is one of the newest, hottest and brightest additions to ESA’s growing album of Herschel highlights.

Infrared astronomy is traditionally described as focusing on the "old, cold and dusty" - that is, the redshifted light from ancient galaxies on the edge of the observable universe, cool objects such as brown dwarfs that shine only in infrared wavelengths, and infant stars and planets still wrapped in shrouds of dust.

The Herschel probe, launched last May, is the most sensitive far-infrared telescope in operation. And its picture of the Rosette cloud, 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros, shows off the spacecraft's strengths. The different colors in the image represent variations in temperature that would be invisible to the naked eye, ranging from 387 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-233 degrees Celsius or 40 Kelvin) to minus-441 degrees F (-263 C, 10 K).

The bright smudges in the picture are dusty cocoons that hide massive stars in the process of being born. The heft of the stars is what makes them so highly sought after.

"High-mass star-forming regions are rare and further away than low-mass ones," Frederique Motte of France's Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay said in today's image release. Motte is due to present the first scientific results from the Herschel Imaging Survey of OB Young Stellar Objects, or HOBYS, next month at the European Space Agency's annual ESLAB symposium.

OB-class stars like the ones seen in the Rosette cloud put out so much energy that they can spark a ripple effect of starbirth in the clouds of gas and dust that surround them. Astronomers would love to compare the patterns of starbirth seen in distant galaxies with that seen in our own Milky Way galaxy. That's why figuring out the Milky Way's scenarios for sparking new stars is one of Herschel's top jobs.

Whirlpool Galaxy
Southern Cross nebula
Aquila cloud. Click on images for larger versions.

"Herschel will look at many other high-mass star-forming regions, some of them building stars up to a hundred times the mass of the sun," Motte said.

The Rosette cloud is only the latest Herschel target to come to light. Three other views of starbirth can be found in the Online Showcase of Herschel Images, or OSHI:

  • The collection includes one of the first images released by the Hubble team, which maps out star formation in the Whirlpool Galaxy.
  • Another picture, taken last September, shows infant stars coming to life within a "dark nebula" in the constellation Crux, also known as the Southern Cross. Dark nebulae were once thought to be merely empty spaces in the night sky, but astronomers now know that they are immense, cool clouds of dust that can hide new stars.
  • Yet another picture shows several hundred stars forming within a dark cloud of gas and dust 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila. The cloud is part of Gould's Belt, a ring of bright young stars that surround our own solar system.

Herschel is due to be in operation for at least two more years, and most likely for longer than that. So keep an eye on OSHI ... and watch for further additions to Herschel's hit parade.

For more infrared wonders, check out the Spitzer Space Telescope's photo album and our own Spitzer slideshow. And for something completely different, check out my book, "The Case for Pluto." The next event on the book-tour schedule is my talk at the National Academy of Sciences' Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. In the meantime, you can join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter