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Spectacular star images

30 November 2009

SPIRE spectrum of the merging galaxy. The results show the two large spiral galaxies colliding 250 million light years from Earth.SPIRE spectrum of the merging galaxy. The results show the two large spiral galaxies colliding 250 million light years from Earth.

Images which reveal atoms and molecules involved in the birth and death of stars have been seen for the first time thanks to the expertise of leading University scientists.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released spectacular new images from the Herschel Space Observatory, including the SPIRE instrument.

SPIRE was designed and built by an international team led by scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy. Spectrometers on board all three Herschel instruments have been used to analyse the light from objects inside our galaxy and from other galaxies, producing the best measurements yet of atoms and molecules involved in the birth and death of stars.

Professor Matt Griffin, School of Physics and Astronomy, who is the SPIRE Principal Investigator, said: "Some trial observations have been made during initial testing of the spectrometer, and it is clear that the data are of excellent quality – even these initial results are very exciting scientifically.

"With this instrument, astronomers will be able to examine the composition and properties of interstellar matter in a way never before possible. The spectrometer was technically very challenging to build, and the whole team is delighted that it works so well."

The SPIRE Fourier Transform Spectrometer covers the submillimetre wavelength range (194–672 microns), and provides a complete survey of the source spectrum over that whole wavelength range in a single observation, something that has never been possible with previous submillimetre instruments.

Professor Derek Ward-Thompson, School of Physics and Astronomy, a leading expert in the field of star formation, said: "These results are spectacular. We have never had access to spectra at these wavelengths before. They provide a fascinating insight into the interstellar medium, which will keep scientists busy for many years to come."

This information is invaluable to astronomers in determining the composition, temperature, density and mass of interstellar material in nearby galaxies and in star-forming clouds in our own galaxy.

At the same time as measuring the intensities of narrow spectral features from gas atoms and molecules, the SPIRE spectrometer also accurately measures the broadband emission from dust. With its multi-pixel detector arrays, it can also produce spectral images, allowing astronomers to measure the spatial variation in the interstellar material.

Professor Peter Ade, School of Physics and Astronomy, who is an expert in submillimeter astronomical instrumentation, said: "At last the power of a space-borne FTS spectrometer, which was conceived and developed on a test bed here at Cardiff University, has been fully realised.

"These beautiful spectra of star-forming clouds, dying stars and distant galaxies reveal the nature of the atoms and molecules within them and provide important insights into the underlying physical structure of those sources."

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