SPIRE takes detailed look at giant star

New images and data from an instrument attached to the groundbreaking Herschel Space Observatory, and co-designed by a University of Lethbridge team, are showing off even more detail about the origins of the universe including previously-undiscovered information about a giant star more than 5,000 light years away that could soon explode as a supernova.

Physics and Astronomy researcher Dr. David Naylor, Head of the Space Astronomy Division of the Institute for Space Imaging Science at the University of Lethbridge and his team of researchers lead Canada's contribution to the Herschel project on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency.

He co-designed an instrument that is called the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver ("SPIRE"), and is one of three devices attached to the Herschel telescope system.

"SPIRE detects radiation emitted at very long wavelengths, well beyond the limit of human eye. These wavelengths probe a different part of the universe, one that cannot be studied with optical techniques," Naylor said.
"This allows us to study two unique areas of astronomy: the very coldest parts of the universe where stars are born, and the very distant universe. Taken together this information provides a better picture of how stars and galaxies evolved over cosmic time."

The Herschel team recently turned the observatory's attention to a large star approximately 5,000 light years from earth called VY Canis Majoris, in the final stages of 'death' and got many surprising results,– the key one being an excess of water in the readings.

"VY Canis Majoris is about 2600 times as big as our sun and about 100,000 times as bright," Naylor said. "To put it in perspective if the earth were orbiting this star it would have already been consumed by the dying star, which is now larger than the orbit of Saturn. The giant star would vapourize all material in its path as it expanded, not just ices and oceans but rock itself."

While the Herschel images are spectacular and offer a complementary view to those provided by optical telescopes such as Hubble, Naylor said it is only through spectroscopy that one can identify the molecules present in these sources.

"With SPIRE we can look at the big picture, or the very tiny picture, and gain a whole new insight into how stars live and die. The reason the imagery is so clear is that the space observatory employs the largest mirror launched to date and that the observatory sits more than 1.5 million km from earth, far removed from the effects of the earth's atmosphere."

Building on the success of Herschel and with support from the CSA, Naylor is championing a Canadian role in the SPace Infrared telecope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA). SPICA a Japanese/European space agency mission is similar to Herschel but promises to be an astonishing factor of 100 times more sensitive! Worldwide, this project involves research teams in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, UK.

In Alberta, a recent and significant collaboration has been launched with the University of Calgary and Athabasca University, where several researchers have formed the Institute for Space Imaging Science (ISIS) to work together on projects that take space research further than Herschel technology, whether on the ground or in the atmosphere.

The imaging power of the SPIRE instrument on Herschel spacecraft is a major leap forward in our ability to explore the Universe, says University of Calgary Professor Russ Taylor, Director of ISIS. SPIRE is a prominent example of Albert leadership in the development of advanced technology for Space.

As well, Blue Sky Spectroscopy, a local high tech spin off company founded by Naylor in 2003, and now privately owned and operated, has been the data processing centre for the data from the SPIRE spectrometer.
Blue Sky has been key in processing data in the most accurate way possible to allow astronomers to make the best use of the SPIRE spectrograph. Seeing the first accurately calibrated spectra of astronomical targets has been the reward for many years of hard and diligent work. The Canadian Space Agency has committed to support this effort throughout the lifetime of the instrument.