|What is this?||A view of thousands of distant galaxies, in a patch of sky called the Lockman Hole|
|Where is it in the sky?||In the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear|
|How big is it?||The image is around 4 degrees across|
|How far away is it?||The galaxies are at a range of distances, but some are seen as they were 10 billion years ago, when the Universe was a fraction of its current age|
|What do the colours represent?||Redder galaxies are either cooler or more distant, bluer galaxies are warmer or closer to us. The brighter galaxies are forming stars more vigorously.|
This false-colour image shows a small portion of the sky observed by Herschel. Almost every point of light is an entire galaxy, each containing billions of stars. The colours represent the far-infrared wavelengths measured by Herschel, with redder galaxies either being further away or containing colder dust, while brighter galaxies are forming stars more vigorously. While at a first glance the galaxies look to be scattered randomly over the image, in fact they are not. A closer look will reveals that there are regions which have more galaxies in, and regions that have fewer. This clustering of galaxies through space provides information about the way they have interacted over the history of the Universe.
The HerMES project, which uses the UK-led SPIRE instrument on board Herschel, has been surveying large areas of the sky, currently totalling 15 square degrees – around 60 times the size of the Full Moon. The two regions mapped so far are in the constellations of Ursa Major and Draco, well away from the confusion of our own Galaxy. Galaxies which are brightest at Herschel’s far-infrared wavelengths are typically seen as they were around 10 billion years ago, the light having been travelling towards us since that time.
By observing in the far-infrared, Herschel sees material that cannot be seen at visible wavelengths, namely cold gas and dust between the stars. Despite the new window on the Universe afforded by the far-infrared light, Herschel is still not seeing the full picture. Three quarters of the matter in our Universe is made up of mysterious “dark matter”, which does not shine at all. Since we cannot see dark matter, we do not yet know what it is made of, but we can measure its effect on the matter around it. Although it does not emit or absorb light, dark matter does interact with the rest of the Universe through gravity, gradually pulling groups of galaxies together into huge clusters over the course of billions of years. While many computer simulations exist of how this occurs, the ability to measure this at different times through the history of the Universe allows astronomers to compare the simulations with real measurements.
Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, resides on the suburbs of a large supercluster centred about 60 million light years away. The neighbouring supercluster of galaxies to us is around 300 million light years away. By comparison, 10 billion years ago galaxies were only 20 to 30 million light years apart on average. Their proximity means that many of the galaxies will eventually collide with one another. It is these collisions that stirs up the gas and dust in the galaxies and causes the rapid bouts of star formation. Professor Asantha Cooray, of the University of Califonia, is one of the HerMES astronomers leading this investigation, and he commented on the latest HerMES results: “Thanks to the superb resolution and sensitivity of the SPIRE instrument on Herschel, we managed to map in detail the spatial distribution of massively starforming galaxies in the early universe. All indications are that these galaxies are busy. They are crashing, merging, and possibly settling down at centres of large dark matter halos.”
It has required the sensitivity and resolution of Herschel to be able to identify the brightest galaxies and establish the way in which they are clustering. Dr Lingyu Wang, of the University of Sussex, said “we have known for a long time that environment plays an important role in shaping galaxies’ evolution. With Herschel, we are able to pierce through huge amounts of dust and study the impact of the environment right from the birth of these massive galaxies forming stars at colossal rates. This is allowing us to witness the active past of today’s dead elliptical galaxies at times when they were in rich environments.”
Professor Seb Oliver, of the University of Sussex, who co-leads the HerMES project, said “this result from Asantha’s team is fantastic, it is just the kind of thing we were hoping for from Herschel and was only possible because we can see so many thousands of galaxies, it will certainly give the theoretician’s something to chew over”. This work, conducted as part of the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES) Key Project of the Herschel mission, will be published in the international science journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics” in a special issue dedicated to the first science results from Herschel. The project will continue to collect more images over larger areas of the sky in order to build up a more complete picture of how galaxies have evolved and interacted over the past 10 billion years.