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  • 3 April 2009

University of Sussex physicist stars on Sky At Night

Physicist Seb Oliver talks with Sir Patrick Moore for The Sky At Night

Seb Oliver discusses the Herschel satellite project with Sir Patrick Moore for The Sky At Night
Photo: Steart Robinson, University of Sussext

University of Sussex physicist Dr Seb Oliver joins astronomer Sir Patrick Moore this Monday April 6) to talk about the launch of the world's largest ever space telescope on the BBC's long-running series The Sky At Night.

The interview with Sir Patrick took place at the astronomer's Selsey home in West Sussex. The programme will explore what Herschel, Europe's biggest and most expensive space satellite, will do once it begins its infrared exploration of the universe.

Dr Oliver was asked to join Sir Patrick because he is jointly leading one of the biggest projects that Herschel will carry out. Dr Oliver says: "I explained some of the science that Herschel is hoping to do and I demonstrated an infrared camera bv filming the temperature variations across Sir Patrick's face.

"Everyone in the Sky At Night team was very friendly and made me quite at ease, though it was nerve-wracking to be quizzed by such an icon. It will be very embarrassing to watch myself and I expect I'll have to watch from behind the sofa, just like that other TV institution, Dr Who!"

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory, to be launched from a site on French Guiana later this month (April), 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.

Herschel's major objective will be discovering how the first galaxies formed and how they evolved to give rise to present-day galaxies like our own.

Infrared technology detects radiation from very cold and distant objects, such as young stars and evolving galaxies, that would not be visible to other telescopes. The Herschel observatory, using special infrared instruments, will allow scientists to study other planetary systems and the birth of galaxies in the early Universe.

Dr Oliver, a Reader in Astronomy in the University's department of Physics and Astronomy, will undertake surveys of galaxies based on data produced by the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE), one of three special instruments on board Herschel. SPIRE is a collaboration of 18 institutes from eight countries.

Dr Oliver, who studies galaxies that emit light at the mid and far infrared wavelengths, 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."

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

Notes for editors

The Sky At Night is the BBC’s longest-running programme with the same presenter, Sir Patrick Moore. It was first broadcast in April 1957. The episode featuring Dr Seb Oliver will be on the following channels, dates and times:

BBC 1: Mon 6 Apr 2009, 00:40

BBC Four: Mon 6 Apr 2009, 19:30


The Herschel launch takes place in April (final date to be announced) 2009, at the Guiana Space Centre near Kourou in French Guiana, on board an Ariane 5 ECA rocket. Herschel will then spend four months travelling to its final destination – a distance of around 1.5 million km from Earth, on Earth's night side. Herschel will then spend the next three years collecting data. By launching the observatory into Space, the telescope will be able to study the stars where the Earth’s atmosphere cannot obscure the view.


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 space science research at the University see Astronomy


University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune, Jacqui Bealing and Danïelle Treanor. Call 01273 678 888 or email

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