Herschels eyes the infrared Southern Cross

By Phil Plait | October 2, 2009 8:30 am

The hits from space keep on coming! Take a peek at this new image from Europe’s Herschel space telescope, which peers at the Universe’s far-infrared light:

[As usual, click it to embiggen.]

Very pretty! This image is a composite of five separate images taken with two cameras (PACS and SPIRE), which together cover a wavelength range of light of 70 out to 500 microns — and, bearing in mind the reddest wavelength the human eye can see is about 0.8 microns, you can see that this is way, way out in the infrared.

What you’re seeing here are cold dust clouds in the constellation of Crux, the Southern Cross. It was thought these regions would be fairly smooth on these scales, but Herschel is revealing that in fact they’re pretty turbulent. You can see ribbons and filaments of material here, caused by stars forming deep in these dense clouds. You can the odd proplyd or two; small (well, much bigger than our solar system but small-looking here) disks of matter, very dense clouds with stars forming in their cores. Proplyd is short for protoplanetary disks, because these structures are in the process of forming solar systems much like ours. And you can also see long fingers of material; towers of matter where newly-born stars are eroding and blowing away the dust with their stellar winds. In a sense, these are like cosmic sandbars, material being sculpted by fluids flowing past them.

Star formation can take place in such thickly-choked regions, but visible light cannot penetrate them; even to Hubble this would be dark material and we could only see the very surface of these clouds. But Herschel sees the kind of infrared light that passes right through the dust, so astronomers can look into the hearts of these areas and learn about star formation. We know quite a bit already, but there are still gaps in our knowledge because these clouds are so thick and difficult to study. With Herschel now on the prowl, we can expect to find out a lot about how stars are born… and also to see more pretty images like this one.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (21)

Links to this Post

  1. October 2009 « NSS Phoenix Space News | August 3, 2010
  1. Wow, that’s beyond the Q band isn’t it? Almost getting near microwaves?

    Man, it’s so cool learning new things about this incredible universe!

  2. DrFlimmer

    Space contains the best of art! Definitely.

  3. Jeff from Tucson

    We truly live in a wonderful time… I envy our grandchildren their discoveries in and exploration of this cosmos.

  4. Patti

    There is a blue S on the right side. See it?

  5. gopher65

    Awesome. I’ve been looking forward to Herschel’s launch and start of operations for quite some time now. I’m glad it’s finally taking data:).

  6. So cool! Literally! I wish we could get a real close-up on those proplyds…

  7. turbulent is an understatement, i see lots of perfect spheres in there.. what causes that? its like a pile of soap bubbles in many areas, spheres comingling and building up and crossing each other.

  8. Jeremy

    I’m with Richard. Can someone point out a proplyd for me?

  9. Trucker Doug

    When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
    You understand now why you came this way,
    ‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small,
    But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day.

    The truth is big, and quite amazing. I now see one of my favorite constellations in an entirely new light (no pun intended.)

  10. Jamey

    I noticed one thing when I hit the original website – the image above is created from two other images, one from the SPIRE instrument, one from the PACS instrument.

    The SPIRE image uses three wavelengths, and was presented as red (500 um), green (350 um) and blue (250 um). The PACS used cyan for 70 um, and red for 160 um.

    However, the combined image apparently uses the two PACS channels as the blue and green, and compresses all of the SPIRE data into the red channel. Why not instead use the 70 um PACS for blue, the 250 um for green, and the 500 um for red, and then interpolate the 160 um between the blue/green channels, and the 350 um between the green/red channels?

    Wouldn’t that give a truer impression of what we would see if that section of the spectrum were up-converted to our visible range?

  11. Crudely Wrott

    Dammit, that’s beautiful. Not merely pleasing to the eye and the intellect. Something to do with seeing confirmation of an old notion. That would be the idea that creation was not a phenomenon. Rather, it is a process.

    I find the notion deeply satisfying.

    Thanks, Phil.

  12. Michael Kingsford Gray

    That image would make a far superior flag for Australia than the present bland atrocity.

    A few astronomers berate the Crux Australis as being a rather pathetic constellation.
    Yet it has probably saved my skin on many an occasion. (Dr. Plait would not count himself amongst them, I take it?)

    Not having a ‘pole star’ in the south, I have used the Southern Cross to navigate whilst in the outback in more than one instance, especially when in tactical mode during army practice manouvres. I find it by far the most recognisable astronomical guide in the southern sky. (I live in South Australia).

    It had never entered my mind to use infra-red goggles to sight the star group!
    The provided photo shows me what I may have missed! (Only teasing)

    (Imagine that the crux it is a roman crucifix.
    Extend 4 & half pole lengths into “the ground in which said imaginary crucifix is embedded” across the sky, drop a vertical down to the horizon, and that is due south.)

  13. You can follow all the news from the Herschel mission on the mission blog.

  14. Naomi

    Whoa – NEAT!

    And yeah, the Southern Cross is a lifesaver. Another way to find South – follow a line down its long end and another down the perpendicular of the Pointers. Where they meet is just about due south.

  15. Jeremy:
    I mean a -REAL- closeup! Maybe the Webb will do the trick. I want to see planets forming!
    OK, I want it all…
    You can go to Google, click on “Images” and type in “proplyds” and see what we now know about them.

  16. mike burkhart

    I’ve only seen the southern cross once on a vacation .This image is incredable of intrest to me in the southern cross is the jewl box cluster

  17. Y’know, I’d wanted to go to Australia for years and finally got to go last month for two weeks. Never saw the damn Southern Cross the entire time!

  18. StevoR

    @ 11 Michael Kingsford Gray & 12 Naomi :

    Another method is to point to the “pointers” (Alpha & Beta Centauri) with one out-stretched hand and at Achernar (a bright star in the direction of one axis of the Cross with your other outstreched arm and then bring your hands together. You will be pointing roughly at the South Celestial Pole (SCP) and due south.

    The Cross roughly pints to Corvus (A kite shaped group of stars with Spica nearby – it is sometimes referred to as “Spica’s spinakker” (the large yacht sail) in one direction and Achernar and a ‘H’ shaped asterism of stars incl. Achernar (Alpha Eridani, two other fainter stars in Eridani, two stars in Phoenix and Alpha Hydrus.

    @ 14 mike burkhart : Exactly -it is located near Mimosa or Beta Crucis. Fantastic through a telescope. Also sometimes called the Kappa Crucis cluster I think.

  19. mike burkhart

    One more thing KEEP THE IMANGES COMEING!!!!!!!!!

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