For thousands of years, people have turned their eyes up to the night sky, gazed upon billions of twinkling stars and questioned what lies in the vast, unknown expanse.
So, it’s only natural to get excited when you talk to U of L astronomer Dr. David Naylor about space exploration and the thought of clearly viewing the unknown stars and galaxies.
For the last 15 years, Dr. David Naylor has been working to develop SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver), an instrument that currently sits 1.5 million km from Earth, bolted securely to the Herschel space telescope. Launched last May from French Guiana, the European Space Agency (ESA) Herschel mission enables astronomers to observe stars and galaxies at wavelengths far beyond the limit of human vision, known as the far-infrared or terahertz spectral region.
While the radiation in this region is invisible to the human eye, it contains a wealth of information on the composition and physical environment of the sources under study. Through the Herschel mission, astronomers are seeing, for the first time, stars and entire galaxies previously undetected in the night sky.
Apart from the obvious challenges associated with observing objects billions of light years away, the biggest problem with ground-based observations is absorption by water vapour in the earth’s atmosphere.
“It doesn’t seem fair – light travels billions of years to reach us, containing precious information on the nature of the early universe, and the hardest part of the journey is the last kilometre or few microseconds,” explains Naylor.
To solve this problem, infrared telescopes are placed in space. The Herschel is the first observatory class mission to be sent to L2, a location far removed from the earth’s atmosphere.
As the lead Canadian researcher for the Canadian Space Agency’s contribution to the eight-nation Herschel project, Naylor has played a key role in the big science of space imagery by working with a team to design SPIRE, one of three devices attached to the Herschel space observatory. SPIRE was made to function at a chilly -270 C, collect data from the far infrared end of the electromagnetic spectrum and turn it into valuable information and images of stars and galaxies. While one might envision SPIRE to be of epic dimensions, the device is actually about the size of a toaster oven. Mind you, it did cost $100 million to develop.
But for SPIRE to be of any use, it first had to prove its worth. In mid-June, Naylor and his partner researchers collectively held their breath to see if the device would in fact help them see more clearly into space.
“The mission control operators started the telescope up in stages,” recalls Naylor. “Our instrument was the first brought online for performance verification, and it worked flawlessly.”
The next step, which also passed without a hitch, was to pop open the hatch – officially called a cryocover, or the equivalent of a camera lens cap – and reveal the giant 3.5 m telescope mirror to the outer reaches of space. Then it was activated.
It was only then that the Herschel mission shone brightest, providing images of space much quicker and with more accuracy than any telescope ever launched.
“The initial images reveal a level of detail never before seen from the ground or from space through the Hubble telescope,” says Naylor. “By nature, physics researchers don’t get too excited, but to see these images and know that we’re looking at them in a whole new way, and to further know that we’ll be able to share this information with our students and the public so they can learn about the origins of the universe, is truly exciting.”
For Naylor, it’s only the tip of the iceberg, or in his case, the galaxies.
“This isn’t even the telescope operating at full capacity. These are initial ‘test’ images – like driving a race car very slowly around the track… you know it works and is quite impressive, but wait until the driver opens the throttle!”
Also gratifying – and possibly a bit overwhelming – are the unique research collaborations that Naylor sees happening in the future, as data from the Herschel mission start to flow. Researchers get time to use the telescope to study a variety of objects, and Naylor and other
U of L researchers are among a select few to have direct access to the research data.
“We see the images and data here in Lethbridge before anyone else does,” says Naylor. “Scientists will be seeking our help in analyzing information, and the U of L group will be an important Canadian and international resource.”
With an estimated output of up to 7,000 hours per year of data, there should be enough information to keep researchers busy collaborating on both current and future projects for years.
What’s next? According to Naylor, more research that refines his current SPIRE device to make it suitable for yet another space mission, the Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA), which is currently under review by the Japanese, European and Canadian space agencies.
Naylor will also continue to work as a co-founder of the recently formed Institute for Space Imaging Science (ISIS), a joint collaboration with the University of Calgary, that enables researchers from the two institutions and their partner researchers worldwide to share technology and other resources to more efficiently research ground-based or atmosphere-based projects.