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The Crab Nebula

WHEN A MASSIVE STAR EXPLODES at the end of its life, the shattered remains become known as a supernova remnant. The one shown here is called the Crab Nebula.

This is a composite view produced with data from two telescopes: the Herschel Space Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions, and Hubble is a NASA mission with important ESA contributions.

A wispy and filamentary cloud of gas and dust, the Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova explosion that was observed by Chinese astronomers in the year 1054.

The Crab Nebula

A new view of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant, using data gathered by the Herschel Space Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The image combines Hubble’s view of the nebula at visible wavelengths, obtained using three different filters sensitive to the emission from oxygen and sulphur ions (both shown here in blue). Herschel’s far-infrared image (shown here in red) reveals the emission from dust in the nebula.

While studying the dust content of the Crab Nebula with Herschel, a team of astronomers have detected emission lines from argon hydride, a molecular ion containing the noble gas argon. This is the first detection of a noble-gas based compound in space.

At the heart of the nebula is the Crab Pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star that emits a beam of radio waves. As the pulsar spins, the beam sweeps across the field of view as seen from Earth (a pure fluke, as it could have been pointed in any other direction).

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Words and image adapted from information issued by ESA / Herschel / PACS / MESS Key Programme Supernova Remnant  Team; NASA, ESA and Allison Loll / Jeff Hester (Arizona State University).

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New view of the Horsehead Nebula

Horsehead Nebula in infrared light

The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

ASTRONOMERS HAVE USED NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory have produced stunning new photographs of the iconic Horsehead Nebula at infrared wavelengths.

Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. It is about 1,300 light-years from Earth.

The new far-infrared Herschel view shows in spectacular detail the scene playing out around the Horsehead Nebula at the right-hand side of the image, where it seems to surf like a ‘white horse’ in the waves of turbulent star-forming clouds.

Horsehead Nebula in infrared light

A new view from ESA’s Herschel space observatory of the iconic Horsehead Nebula (right) and two other prominent sites where massive stars are forming, NGC 2068 and NGC 2071 (left). Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/N. Schneider, Ph. André, V. Könyves (CEA Saclay, France) for the “Gould Belt survey” Key Programme.

It appears to be riding towards another favorite stopping point for astrophotographers: NGC 2024, also known as the Flame Nebula. This star-forming region appears obscured by dark dust lanes in visible light images, but blazes in full glory in the far-infrared Herschel view.

Intense radiation streaming away from newborn stars heats up the surrounding dust and gas, making it shine brightly to Herschel’s infrared-sensitive eyes.

The panoramic view also covers two prominent sites of massive star formation to the northeast (left-hand side of this image), known as NGC 2068 (or M78) and NGC 2071. These take on the appearance of beautifully patterned butterfly wings, with long tails of colder gas and dust streaming away.

A wide-angle view of the Horsehead Nebula

A wide-angle view of the Horsehead Nebula, seen at normal visible wavelengths. Image Credit: NASA

Extensive networks of cool gas and dust weave throughout the scene in the form of red and yellow filaments, some of which may host newly forming lightweight stars.

The new Hubble view, taken at near-infrared wavelengths with its Wide Field Camera 3 to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the launch of the observatory, zooms in on the Horsehead to reveal fine details of its structure.

Nearby stars illuminate the backlit wisps along the upper ridge of the nebula in an ethereal glow. The harsh ultraviolet glare from these bright stars is slowly evaporating the dusty stellar nursery. Two fledgling stars have already been exposed from their protective cocoons, and can just be seen peeking out from the upper ridge.

The nebula is a favourite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light, but appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths.

Detailed, visible wavelength image of the Horsehead

This detailed, visible wavelength image of the Horsehead was released by the European Southern Observatory in 2002. Image credit: ESO

Adapted from information issued by NASA and ESA.

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Herschel telescope reveals invisible cosmos

HERSHEL, A CUTTING-EDGE SPACE OBSERVATORY, carries the largest, most powerful infrared telescope ever launched.

A pioneering mission of the European Space Agency, it is studying the origin and evolution of stars and galaxies to help understand how the Universe came to be the way it is today.

For this purpose Herschel is looking, at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths, at objects that are among the coldest in space.

Launched in May 2009 it has already given great results to the scientific community by revealing invisible parts of the universe.

More information:

ESA Herschel mission

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Journey to the Centre of the Galaxy

HIDING BEHIND DUST in the direction of the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius is the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, over 25,000 light years away. The infrared vision of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory sees through the dust showing us this strange and tumultuous region.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / ESA.

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Supernovae make raw material for planets

SN 1987A

Observations with the Herschel Space Observatory show that supernova 1987A produced enough dust to make 200,000 new planets.

THE HERSCHEL SPACE OBSERVATORY has discovered that titanic stellar explosions can be excellent dust factories. In space, the dust mixes with gas to become the raw material for new stars, planets and, ultimately, life. This discovery may solve a mystery of the early Universe.

The discovery was made while Herschel was charting emission from cold dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy near to the Milky Way. It is the perfect observatory for the job because cold dust radiates far-infrared light, the wavelengths Herschel is designed to detect.

Herschel saw a spot of light at the location of supernova 1987A, an exploding star first seen from Earth in February 1987, and the closest known supernova in the past 400 years.

Astronomers have been studying the remains of the explosion as its blast wave expands into its surroundings.

Planet factories

Herschel’s images are the first clear-cut far-infrared observations of SN1987A. They reveal cold dust grains at about -250 degrees C, which nevertheless emit more than 200 times the Sun’s energy.

“The supernova remnant was much brighter at infrared wavelengths than we were expecting,” says Mikako Matsuura, University College London, who is the lead author on the scientific paper detailing these results.

The remnant’s brightness was used to estimate the amount of dust. Surprisingly, there turned out to be about a thousand times more dust than astronomers had thought a supernova was capable of producing—enough to make 200,000 planets the size of Earth.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Observatory.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Observatory.

The origin of dust in the Universe is of great interest. The dust’s heavy atoms like carbon, silicon, oxygen and iron were not produced in the Big Bang and must have formed later.

Although they are only a minor part of the Universe and our Solar System, they are the main constituents of rocky planets like Earth and thus of life itself—many of the atoms we are made of were once part of the dust in the Universe.

Dust factories

However, it is not fully understood where this dust comes from, and especially where it came from in the young Universe. But scientists now have a clue.

The many old red giant stars in today’s Universe are thought to be the major dust producers, with the grains condensing like soot in a chimney as warm gases flow away from the star.

However, there were no such stars in the early Universe—yet we know there was already dust.

Now Herschel has shown that supernovae can produce enormous amounts of dust. The astronomers speculate that the dust condenses from the gaseous debris as it expands from the explosion and cools.

Since there were plenty of supernovae in the young Universe, this could help to explain the origin of dust seen at those times.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Images courtesy ESA / C. Carreau / P. Challis (CfA).

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Birth and death in Andromeda

M31 Andromeda galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy, seen at several wavelengths to reveal different stages of the stellar life cycle. Infrared shows reservoirs of gas in which stars are forming. Optical shows adult stars. X-rays show the violent endpoints of stellar evolution, in which individual stars explode or pairs of stars pull each other to pieces.

  • Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest large spiral galaxy
  • Contains a strange dust ring 75,000 light-years wide
  • Infrared and X-ray views show stars forming and dying

TWO SPACE TELESCOPES have combined forces to show the Andromeda Galaxy in a new light.

Using data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel and XMM-Newton telescopes, the image shows the light of newborn stars and X-ray emission from dying stars.

Andromeda, also known as M31, is the nearest large spiral galaxy and is similar to our own Milky Way. Both contain several hundred billion stars.

Herschel was used to produce the most detailed far-infrared image of Andromeda ever taken, showing clearly that more stars are being added to the galaxy.

Sensitive to far-infrared light, Herschel sees the clouds of cool dust and gas where stars can form. Inside these clouds are many dusty cocoons containing still-forming stars, each one pulling itself together in a slow gravitational process that can last for hundreds of millions of years.

Once a star reaches a high enough density, it will begin to shine at optical wavelengths, whereupon it will become visible to normal telescopes.

Andromeda is interesting because it shows a large ring of dust about 75,000 light-years wide encircling the centre of the galaxy. Some astronomers speculate that this ring might be a “scar” that formed after a recent collision with another galaxy.

Herschel space telescope

Artist's impression of the Herschel space telescope

The new Herschel image reveals yet more intricate details, with at least five concentric rings of star-forming dust apparent.

X-rays of stellar corpses

Superimposed on the infrared image is an X-ray view taken almost simultaneously by XMM-Newton. Whereas infrared shows the beginnings of star formation, X-rays usually show the endpoints of stellar evolution.

XMM-Newton highlights hundreds of X-ray sources within Andromeda, many of them clustered around the centre, where stars are more crowded together.

Some of the X-ray sources reveal shockwaves rolling through space from exploded stars. Others indicate pairs of stars locked in a gravitational fight to the death.

In the latter case, one star has already died and is pulling gas from its still-living companion. As the gas falls through space, it heats up and gives off X-rays.

The living star will eventually be greatly depleted, having had much of its mass torn from it by the stronger gravity of its denser partner. As the stellar corpse wraps itself in this stolen gas, it could explode.

Both the infrared and X-ray images show information that is impossible to collect from the ground because these wavelengths are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Image credits: Infrared, ESA / Herschel / PACS / SPIRE /J. Fritz, U. Gent; X-rays, ESA / XMM-Newton / EPIC / W. Pietsch, MPE; optical, R. Gendler.

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10-billion-year-old cosmos mapped

Thousands of galaxies crowd into this Herschel image of the distant Universe.

Thousands of galaxies crowd into this Herschel image of the distant Universe. Each dot is an entire galaxy containing billions of stars.

  • Early galaxies grouped near dark matter
  • Map made using Herschel Space Observatory
  • Largest telescope ever put into space

For more than a decade, astronomers have been puzzled by bright galaxies in the distant universe that appear to be forming stars at phenomenal rates. What prompted the prolific star creation, they wondered. And what kind of environment did these galaxies inhabit?

Now, using a super-sensitive camera/spectrometer on the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have mapped the skies as they appeared 10 billion years ago.

The scientists discovered that these glistening galaxies preferentially occupy regions of the universe containing more dark matter and that collisions probably caused the abundant star production.

“All indications are that these galaxies are…crashing, merging, and possibly settling down at centres of large dark-matter halos,” said Asantha Cooray of the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

The information will enable scientists to adapt conventional theories of galaxy formation to accommodate the strange, star-filled versions.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope.

Largest space telescope

The European Space Agency’s Herschel observatory carries the largest astronomical telescope operating in space today; it collects data at far-infrared wavelengths invisible to the naked eye.

One of three cameras on Herschel, SPIRE has let Cooray and colleagues survey large areas of the sky, about 60 times the size of the full Moon.

The data analysed in this study was among the first to come from the Herschel Multi-Tiered Extragalactic Survey, the space observatory’s largest project.

Seb Oliver, a University of Sussex professor who leads the survey, called the findings exciting.

“It’s just the kind of thing we were hoping for from Herschel,” he said, “and was only possible because we can see so many thousands of galaxies. It will certainly give the theoreticians something to chew over.”

The Herschel Multi-Tiered Extragalactic Survey will continue to collect images over larger areas of the sky in order to build up a more complete picture of how galaxies have evolved and interacted over the past 10 billion years.

Adapted from information issued by UC Irvine / ESA & SPIRE Consortium & HerMES consortia.