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ESA celebrates the discovery of infrared light

View of Toledo by El Greco, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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200 astronomers gather in Toledo, Spain, to set future tasks for ESA's next infrared space telescope

The discovery of infrared light was reported exactly 200 years ago and is an event astronomers are eager to celebrate. The first space observatory able to see in the infrared, ESA's ISO, has unveiled in the last few years a surprising face of the Universe that had remained mostly hidden so far, and that deserves an even deeper exploration. ESA is now preparing to dive yet deeper into the infrared with ISO's successor, Herschel Space Observatory (formerly called FIRST), whose main observing priorities will be discussed by over 200 astronomers from all over the world at a meeting in Toledo (Spain), from 12 to 15 December . ESA takes the opportunity of this workshop, that gathers together many 'infrared pioneers', to celebrate the discovery of infrared light.

Media representatives are welcome to attend the Herschel workshop in Toledo.



The infrared revolution


The term 'light' is usually associated with colours and brightness, but there are other kinds of light, such as ultraviolet or infrared light, invisible to the human eye. The Universe looks completely different when seen in each kind of light, and all these different 'views' are needed to perform a complete exploration. The 'infrared view' of the Universe is the last astronomers have been able to get. [more]



200 Years of infrared discoveries

As recently as 200 years ago the Earth was widely thought to be only about six thousand years old - in 1650 Bishop Ussher had famously calculated the date of creation as 4004BC. The first to recognise the true age of the Earth was a Scottish physician called James Hutton, an amateur geologist, who, in 1790, realised from his study of rock formations that the Earth had to be much older. It was so many millions of years older than previously imagined, that it made Hutton's head spin to be "looking so far into the abyss of time". Geology was not the only science at that time to radically revise and expand the view of the world around us. An unexpected discovery made by an astronomical contemporary of Hutton's would later lead astronomers to revise their view of the Universe just as dramatically. [more]



More about the electromagnetic spectrum

'The promise of FIRST'

The Herschel Space Observatory (formerly called FIRST) workshop at Toledo

Herschel Space Observatory's main research topics include the formation of galaxies and stars. However, Herschel's observing time will be open to the world scientific community and therefore astronomers will discuss how to prioritise the use of the telescope. This is one of the goals of the workshop 'The promise of FIRST', to be held in Toledo (Spain), on 12-15 December. An updated review of the infrared discoveries so far will be presented by some of the most outstanding infrared astronomers. [more]




Daily reports:



ESA's FIRST space telescope to be re-named 'Herschel Space Observatory'

Sir William Herschel

On the 200th anniversary of the discovery of infrared light by William Herschel ESA's Far Infrared and Submillimetre Telescope, FIRST, will be re-named the 'Herschel Space Observatory'. This was announced this morning by ESA's Director of Science, Roger Bonnet, during the opening of the FIRST conference in Toledo, Spain. The Anglo-German astronomer William Herschel discovered infrared light 200 years ago, thanks to which astronomers can now observe a facet of the Universe that otherwise remains hidden. [more]




'Who' contributes more to the 'energy budget' of the Universe?

Artist's impression of Herschel Space Observatory (formerly called FIRST) & NGST located in the L2 point 1,500,000 km from Earth

ESA's 'Herschel Space Observatory' will find out the nature of the first galaxies

How much energy has been released throughout the history of the Universe? As surprising as it may seem, astronomers can deduce that value. Most of the energy is 'locked' in a faint 'glow' that fills the whole universe, and is the remnant of all the energy emitted in the remote past by the first galaxies. That glow, called the 'infrared background radiation', was first detected a few years ago. Now the big question for astronomers is: 'what' were the sources that created the glow? No telescope so far has been able to 'pinpoint' those primeval galaxies to say what they were. ESA's next infrared space telescope, FIRST, is the only instrument able to do the job, as concluded yesterday by astronomers gathered in Toledo (Spain). [more]




ESA's 'Herschel' will shed light on the mysterious transneptunian

Neptune in Primary Colors

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There are still quite a lot of unsolved mysteries in our neighbourhood, the Solar System. Astronomers know very little, for instance, about the so-called 'transneptunian objects': a ring of asteroid-type bodies located beyond planet Neptune. Dutch astronomer Gerald Kuiper predicted the existence of this 'belt' fifty years ago - it is therefore named the 'Kuiper belt'-, but the first detection of one of its constituent bodies only happened in 1992. Further surveys have provided an estimate of how many objects are actually there: possibly 10.000 bodies with a diameter larger than 300 kilometres, and maybe three million larger than 30 kilometres in diameter. Only 300 of them have been observed so far. The list of pending questions about them is very long: what's their precise origin and composition? Which of the comets that periodically visit the Earth are 'Kuiper objects'? ESA's next infrared space telescope, the Herschel Space Observatory - formerly called 'FIRST' - will help to provide the answers, astronomers gathered in Toledo (Spain) said yesterday. [more]







"The Promise of FIRST", programme, abstracts and details:

ESA Science Herschel Space Observatory home page"

Sir William Herschel: a biography

ESA Science ISO home page

ESA Science NGST home page

ESA Science Planck home page


Last update: 25 January 2001