Hailing it as the beginning of a golden age of astronomy, researchers say the latest data beamed back to earth by the Herschel Space Observatory (HSO) is providing them a rare peep into distant galaxies. Herschel is the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space.

It carries one-piece mirror which is one-and-a-half times larger than that of the Hubble telescope. It is designed to study some of the coldest objects in space, located deep in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum that is still largely unexplored. The data sent back by it has opened a new window on galaxies, say researchers at Canada’s McMaster University.

“Its massive one-piece mirror, which is almost one-and-a-half times larger than Hubble’s, is delivering sharper images of the stars with coverage of a wider wavelength spectrum,” the researchers said in a statement here.

This new data is providing astronomers with a better understanding of the composition, temperature, density and mass of interstellar gas and dust -- the fuel for star formation -- in nearby galaxies and star-forming clouds, the statement said.

“Herschel is creating excitement not only in the scientific community, but the general public as well,” said Chris Wilson, who is a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at McMaster University.

“We are really entering a golden age for astronomers because, for the first time, we can analyze precise data — that we cannot gather on the ground -- from nearby galaxies, which will help interpret observations of more distant galaxies where we can’t see such fine spatial detail,” said the Canadian astronomer who is the principal researcher on one of the Herschel projects, Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium of Very Nearby Galaxies.

He said his team of scientists from seven countries was examining the closest examples of every type of galaxy they can find to study the properties of the gas in the galaxies and determine how the properties of the gas relate to star formation.

“The far-infrared wavelengths probed by Herschel are absolutely crucial for understanding the physical processes and properties of the interstellar medium,” said Wilson.

“This remains poorly understood, but we are getting a clearer picture of the wider environment in galaxies.”

A joint venture of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, Herschel was launched in May by the European Space Agency.

Scientists from around the world will be able to use Herschel for approximately four years after which it is expected to run out of liquid helium to keep its sensitive instruments cold.

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