Europe plays a leading role in astronomical discovery
Have you ever wondered where galaxies come from? Well, you are not the only one: scientists now believe that one of the fundamental questions of cosmology can be answered within the next ten years, or even sooner. This will require an international effort as some of the observations must be taken from space, beyond the interference of the earth’s atmosphere. Europe will play a key role, with three new instruments, including the EUR 1 billion Herschel Space Observatory (HSO). The European Science Foundation (ESF) has brought together many of the principle users of these facilities at an international conference, including leading specialists in all aspects of galaxy and star formation.
Although galaxy formation can be observed indirectly (with the radiation emitted from dust obscuring a direct view), the latest generation of telescopes can span a broader spectrum of wavelengths. This is vital for understanding the many processes and chemical elements involved, which can only be identified via the radiation they emit across multiple wavelengths, rather than their intensity at a particular point of the spectrum, or single ‘colour’.
The main advantage is that the entire ‘spectral energy distribution’ (SED) can
be mapped for each source, allowing astronomers to measure emissions from specific
molecules and ‘colours’ as well as total luminosity. ‘From the SED one can derive
many properties of the sources, including temperatures and composition,’ says
Dr van Kampen. Scientists are now confident that dramatic progress will be made,
and eagerly await new discoveries. As Eelco van Kampden likes to point out, ‘There
will be many surprises, as this is still a relatively uncharted wavelength range’.