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This page was published on 23/07/2007
Published: 23/07/2007


Published: 23 July 2007  
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Space  |  Pure sciences  |  International cooperation


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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.

Previous observations have been obscured by clouds of interstellar dust. © Matt+
Previous observations have been obscured by clouds of interstellar dust.
Previous observations of galaxy formation from optical telescopes have been hampered by clouds of interstellar dust that absorb visible light. However, the dust re-emits this visible light absorbed from galaxies at longer wavelengths, and the latest instruments are now sensitive enough to detect it and unravel the processes being studied, as Eelco van Kampen, chair of the ESF Research Conference 'The Origin of Galaxies: Exploring Galaxy Evolution with the New Generation of Infrared-Millimetre Facilities', underlined. ‘The main reason for a new golden age is the sheer number of new instruments that will become available over the next few years, literally opening up the universe in the far-infrared to millimetre wavelengths,’ stated Dr van Kampen.

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’.

Apart from the Herschel Space Observatory, Europe is also contributing towards two other instruments used as part of the international observing effort. These are SCUBA-2, which is a wide-field camera for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), 16,400 feet up in the Andes Mountains of Chile.

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