Invisible clouds burst with new stars

These swirling clouds show part of our own galaxy as we can never see it directly with our eyes – and astronomers are surprised by the intense activity it reveals.

The view, from Europe’s new Herschel space telescope, picks out a reservoir of cold gas in the constellation of Crux, the Southern Cross, that is bursting with newly-forming stars.

The image reveals material as it would appear if our eyes were tuned into infrared wavelengths rather than visible light. It was produced by combining scans from two cameras aboard Herschel, the biggest telescope in space, which was launched in May.

The instruments – the Spectral and Photometric Imaging REceiver (SPIRE), and the Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) – were aimed at an area in the plane of the Milky Way about 60° from its centre. It covers around 16 times the area of the Full Moon as seen in the sky.

They discovered a region in complete turmoil. Herschel peered through the glow of the dust to spot a structure of long filaments of gas with stars forming on them like pearls on string.

The new pictures were made on 3 September during the first trial run with the two instruments working together. Herschel will go on to survey large areas of our galaxy.

SPIRE Principal Investigator is Professor Matt Griffin, of Cardiff University. He said: “We had high hopes for this kind of observation with Herschel, using the combined power of the two cameras to see the galaxy as never before.

“It’s great to see that the observations work so well from a technical point of view, and that the scientific results are so spectacular. It appears that star formation in the galaxy is a very turbulent process.”

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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