Friday, May 7, 2010

A Cool New Vision

The public got its first glimpse of the new projects coming form the data generated by the Herschel Space Observatory . This new observatory was launched almost a year ago (19th of May 2009) to study the universe at wavelength in the extreme of the  infra red and microwave wavelengths. The ability to study images of the universe at these specific wavelengths enables scientists to view regions of space which are obscured by dusty clouds to ground telescopes. Within these regions we have some of the most active star formations. Studying these formations will give us an insight into not only star formation but also the molecular chemistry which takes place in these stellar nurseries.

Some of new images which were released yesterday are truly awe inspiring. In these stellar nurseries Herschel has observed a vast array of new star formations. Stars ranging from ones similar in size to our sun to some heavyweight star tens of times more massive.

This image which can be seen on the main Herschel site shows a new star on the verge of its birth. In the bubble a bright white spot is visible at the bottom. This white spot is a star in its earliest form of evolution. It is estimated that this star it only a few thousand years old. From early observations its mass is of the order of ten times that of the sun. It is not currently understood how stars form which have masses greater than 10 solar masses.

The study of these heavyweights of the stellar world is vital to our understanding of the formation of the heavy elements which makeup everything we see around us. The visible universe is made up almost entirely of just two elements; hydrogen and helium. If these were the only elements that existed the universe wouldn't be a very exciting place. The heavy elements such as lithium, iron and all the other myriad of elements that makeup you and me are formed when one of these heavyweights explodes in supernova. In these explosions the star sheds it's other layers which rush out into interstellar space. In these expanding waves are carried the heavy elements which were formed in this extreme inferno. This event is vital in enriching the area around these stars. The death of a large star can help trigger new star formation and help continue the cycle of star formation. I think it is one of the most amazing ideas that we are all stardust born in the raging fires of some distant supernova.


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