Back in June and July Stuart and I talked about the very first images from PACS and SPIRE, two of the three instruments onboard the Herschel Space Telescope (for those of you who were wondering, the third instrument, HIFI, is currently switched off due to a malfunction but it should be back working properly soon). Well, the PACS and SPIRE cameras can also be operated in the versatile ‘Parallel Mode’ in which they observe the same patch of sky simultaneously. This is a very efficient way to take images in all of Herschel’s five available infrared wavelengths (3 from SPIRE, and 2 from PACS), and will eventually be used to survey large areas of the sky quickly.
The stunning picture at the top of this post is the result of colouring and combining all five images from the first trial Parallel Mode run. It shows an area of the Milky Way (our own galaxy) about 16 times bigger than the area of the full Moon (that’s 2×2 square degrees). Herschel is designed to see the cold clouds of dust and gas that are invisible to other telescopes like Hubble. In this case the clouds are surrounding newly forming stars – the turmoil suggested by all the twisting filaments makes this an exciting place to be born!
Herschel is now approaching the end of its testing and calibration phase and will soon begin what’s known as ‘science demonstration’, in which it will test out a range of different observations to make sure it’s performing as expected. The first science data has already gone to a select few astronomers – I think things are going to get very busy, very soon!