Sussex astronomers peer into cosmic dust of 10 billion years ago

University of Sussex astronomers have helped to develop a space telescope that will reveal how the Universe looked up to 10 billion years ago.

The European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, launch date 14 May, will be carrying the largest telescope to be flown in space. It includes a 3.5 m-diameter mirror that will give astronomers their best view yet of the distant (and therefore early) Universe, using far-infrared wavelengths.

A team at the Astronomy Centre at Sussex, led by Dr Seb Oliver, has been involved with the design and development of one of the telescope's key pieces of equipment, the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE), which uses infrared technology to detect how stars and galaxies form.

Dr Oliver, a Reader in Astronomy in the University's department of Physics and Astronomy, now coordinates the largest scientific project being carried out by Herschel . He says: "Our surveys will revolutionise our understanding of the formation of stars in distant parts of the Universe. We hope to find hundreds of thousands of new galaxies, seeing them as they were eight to ten billion years ago. The Universe is quite shy about forming stars. By using Herschel we can see the cool emission from the dusty cocoons harbouring young stars."

SPIRE was a collaboration between 18 institutes from eight countries and is one of three especially designed scientific instruments on board the telescope. The total cost of the Herschel mission is €1000 million.  It is designed to perform routine science operations for a minimum of three years.

The telescope is named after the British astronomer William Herschel, who discovered infrared radiation in 1800 while studying the Sun.

 The Herschel Space Observatory is due to be launched at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou French Guiana.


Notes for editors

  • For further information about the Herschel and SPIRE see: HERSCHEL and SPIRE
  • For details of Dr Oliver's project, the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey, see HerMES
  • For information about astrophysics and cosmology research at the University see Astronomy
  • University of Sussex Press Office, email:, tel: 01273 678888

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 11 December 2009