Herschel looks back to galaxies of 12 billion years ago

The "Great Observatory Origins Deep Survey" (GOODS), area, showing three SPIRE bands, with red, green and blue corresponding to 500µm, 350µm and 250µm respectively. Every fuzzy blob in this image is a very distant galaxy

University of Sussex physicist Dr Seb Oliver has revealed the new images from the European Space Agency’s Herschel space observatory, showing the most detailed ever view of deep space from 12 billion years ago.

The images reveal tens of thousands of newly-discovered galaxies at the early stages of formation, officially unveiled at the first international Herschel Science meeting in Madrid last week.

The images will be analysed by Dr Oliver, who heads up Herschel’s biggest research project, HerMES (Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey). Dr Oliver and his team (with over 100 astronomers from six countries) expected to discover hundreds of thousands of new galaxies at an early stage of their formations, some 10 billion years ago, and first results have so far exceeded expectations.

Dr Oliver says: “In just one picture we can see ten times as many galaxies as have been seen before by all telescopes like this one, up until today.”

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory is the largest and one of the most expensive space telescope ever built, equipped with three infrared cameras, SPIRE, PACS and HIFI. Herschel was successfully launched on 14 May 2009 aboard an Ariane-5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, for a two-month trip to its observation point, some 1.5 million km from Earth.

Dr Oliver’s HerMES project aims to produce a map of the Universe as it was around eight billion years ago, based on data received from Herschel’s SPIRE camera.  “Seeing such stunning images after just 14 hours of observations gives us high expectations for the full length observations over much larger regions of the Universe.  This will give us a much clearer idea of how star formation has progressed throughout the history of the Universe.”

“It is a great pleasure that Sussex has been able to play a significant role in this project and all of us here are tremendously excited and privileged to be working to understand these fantastic data.”

The first area under investigation has revealed thousands of galaxies, many more than ever seen before by all the world’s telescopes. The pictures feature galaxies from points in the cosmos so far away we are actually looking at what some looked like 12 billion years ago – just over one billion years after the Big Bang – when they were forming their stars.

A major goal of the Herschel mission is to discover how galaxies were formed and how they evolved to give rise to present-day galaxies like our own. The SPIRE infrared camera allows Herschel to detect radiation from very cold and distant objects, such as young stars and evolving galaxies.

The University of Sussex has a specific responsibility for developing and testing software to detect stars and galaxies and measure their properties, which is being carried out by postdoctoral Fellow Dr Anthony Smith. The HerMES team at Sussex also includes postdoctoral fellows Dr Isaac Roseboom, Dr Lingyu Wang and Dr Duncan Farrah.

Notes for Editors


Light travels very fast ~300,000 km per second but the Universe is very big. For the most distant galaxies seen in these maps it still takes 12 billion years to reach us. By comparison the Universe is 13.7 billion years old.

SPIRE is one of three instruments on the Herschel Space Observatory, and has both a camera and a spectrometer.  The camera operates across three wavelength bands centred on 250, 350 and 500 µm, while the spectrometer covers the wavelength range 194-672 µm.  SPIRE is a UK-led instrument, and involves a number of UK institutions: University of Sussex, Cardiff University, Imperial College London, UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

HerMES (Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey) is the largest of Herschel’s Key Programmes, with 900 hours of observation currently allocated, and is carried out by the SPIRE high-redshift Specialist Astronomy Group.  HerMES will map large regions of the sky using cameras that are sensitive to infrared radiation, and is expected to discover over 100 thousand galaxies.  The light from most of these galaxies will have taken more than 10 billion years to reach us, which means we will see them as they were 3 or 4 billion years after the big bang.  Since the cameras are detecting infrared radiation they see star formation that is hidden from conventional telescopes. It is expected that the SPIRE cameras will catch many of the galaxies at the moment they are forming most of their stars.

Herschel was recently listed at number 7 in Time magazine as one of the most important inventions of the year.

More information:

Visit the Sussex Astronomy Centre for more details about astronomy at the University of Sussex

Visit http://www.hermes.sussex.ac.uk/ for the most recent information about HerMES

The UK Herschel Outreach site is http://herschel.cf.ac.uk/

For further information contact the University of Sussex Press office: Tel: 01273 678 888 or email press@sussex.ac.uk

Visit ESA for information about the European Space Agency


Last updated: Monday, 21 December 2009