Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Space Team Discovers Universe is Self-Cleaning

A small glimpse of one region, a tenth of the full area of the Herschel ATLAS images. Everything in this image, apart from the picture of the Moon, which has just been placed there to show the area of sky covered by the survey and the small square that shows the area covered by the Hubble Deep Field, consists of far-infrared emission from cosmic dust. The faint wisps are far-infrared emission from dust grains in the Milky Way but everything else in the image is a dusty galaxy. There are approximately 6000 dusty galaxies detected in this image, while the entire survey contains roughly half a million dusty galaxies, from galaxies similar to our own, to violently star-forming and very dusty galaxies that are being seen as they were over ten billion years ago. This image also shows how the field of hidden astronomy has evolved. The Hubble Deep Field was the first area surveyed by a dust sensitive camera called SCUBA almost 20 years ago. Five galaxies were found and the observations took 50 hrs, meaning it took 10 hours observing time to detect a galaxy. The Herschel-ATLAS maps released today cover an area 100,000 times larger and it took Herschel only 5 seconds on average to detect a galaxy in these images Credit: The Herschel ATLAS team and the European Space Agency. Click for a larger image

An illustration of the time reach of the Herschel ATLAS and the kinds of objects it has discovered. The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago. The points in the diagram (approximately 40,000) show some of the Herschel ATLAS objects. The survey discovered nearby galaxies fairly similar to our own (see galaxies to the top left), and also galaxies that are so far away that we see them as they were only two billion years after the Big Bang. The figure to the bottom right shows a detailed image made with the Atacama Large Millimetre Array of one of these early galaxies. The spectacular ‘Einstein ring’ shows that the far-infrared emission from this source has been gravitationally lensed by the gravitational field of an intervening galaxy. These ultra-distant galaxies are forming stars at a rate 1000 times greater than in the Milky Way and are shrouded by dust from the view of optical telescopes. These violently star-forming and dusty galaxies are the ancestors of the galaxies around us in the Universe today. Credit: The Herschel ATLAS team, the European Space Agency, ALMA and NRAO. Click for a larger image 

An international team of astronomers today (29 June) released a gazetteer of the hidden universe, which reveals the unseen sources of energy found over the last 12 billion years of cosmic history. Professor Haley Gomez of Cardiff University presented this catalogue of the Universe’s hidden energy sources, made with the ESA Herschel Space Observatory, at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham.

About half of the light emitted by stars and galaxies is absorbed by interstellar grains, tiny solid particles that are found everywhere in the space between the stars. The missing fifty per cent has been a huge obstacle for astronomers trying to understand the births and lives of galaxies.

When the European Space Agency (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory launched in 2009 it meant that, for the first time, it was possible to track down this hidden energy. The missing light is re-emitted by the dust grains into far-infrared radiation, detected by the Herschel telescope. For the last seven years, an international team of over 100 astronomers has been analysing the images from the largest Herschel survey, named the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey (the Herschel ATLAS). Today sees the release of their first catalogues of the hidden universe.

The Herschel ATLAS discovered about half a million far-infrared sources. The size of the survey means that the survey contains both large numbers of nearby galaxies like our own, which can be detected with conventional optical telescopes, and very distant galaxies whose light has taken billions of years to reach us. The most distant galaxies in the survey are being seen as they were 12 billion years ago, only shortly after the Big Bang. They are so dusty that they are virtually impossible to detect with standard telescopes and are often gravitationally magnified by intervening galaxies. These early systems are the distant ancestors of galaxies like our own.

Dr Elisabetta Valiante, also of Cardiff University, and the lead author of one of the papers describing the catalogues, says: “The exciting thing about our survey is that it encompasses almost all of cosmic history, from the violent star-forming systems full of dust and gas in the early universe that are essentially galaxies in the process of formation, to the much more subdued systems we see around us today.”

The huge size of the survey has meant that, for the first time, it has also been possible to study the changes that have occurred in galaxies comparatively recently in cosmic history. The team has shown that even only one billion years in the past, a small fraction of the age of the universe, galaxies were forming stars faster and contained more dust than galaxies today.

According to Dr Nathan Bourne of the University of Edinburgh, and the lead author of the other paper describing the catalogues: “We were surprised to find that we didn’t need to look far in the past to see signs of galaxy evolution. Our results show that the reason for this evolution is that galaxies used to contain more dust and gas in the past, and the universe is gradually becoming cleaner as the dust is used up.”

The catalogues and maps of the hidden universe are a triumph for the Herschel team. They will be vital tools for astronomers trying to explore the history of galaxies and the wider cosmos.

The catalogues and maps of the hidden universe are a triumph for the Herschel team. They will be vital tools for astronomers trying to explore the history of galaxies and the wider cosmos.

Dr Loretta Dunne, another Cardiff University scientist, and co-leader of the project adds: “Before Herschel we only knew of a few hundred such dusty sources in the distant universe and we could only effectively 'see' them in black and white. Herschel, with its five filters, has given us the equivalent of technicolour, and the colours of the galaxies tell us about their distances and temperatures. So now we have half a million galaxies we can use to map out the hidden star formation in the universe.”

The H-ATLAS survey is a core part of the EU Research Executive Agency programme the Herschel Extragalactic Project (HELP). HELP brings together H-ATLAS and other extragalactic surveys carried out by Herschel, and combines these with major surveys by other observatories to provide a lasting legacy from the Herschel mission. This data release from the H-ATLAS team is coordinated with data releases this week from the HELP team and the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES). Prof Seb Oliver of the University of Sussex leads HELP and HerMES. He says: “It is fantastic to see these high quality data products emerge from H-ATLAS, I have no doubt that astronomers will be using these for decades to come”.

Göran Pilbratt, the Herschel Project Scientist adds: “Although Herschel made its last observation in 2013, current and future generations of astronomers will find the H-ATLAS maps and catalogues essential for finding their way around the hidden universe.”

Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877 699

Ms Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243

NAM 2016 press office
Tel: +44 (0)115 846 6993

An ISDN line and a Globelynx fixed camera are available for radio and TV interviews. To request these, please contact Robert or Anita.

Science contacts

Dr Nathan Bourne
University of Edinburgh

Dr Loretta Dunne (co-Principal Investigator of the Herschel-ATLAS)
Cardiff University

Prof Haley Gomez
Cardiff University

Dr Elisabetta Valiante
Cardiff University

Prof Steve Eales (co-Principal Investigator of the Herschel ATLAS)
Cardiff University

Dr Goran Pilbratt (Project Scientist of the Herschel Space Observatory)
European Space Agency

Prof Seb Oliver (Principal Investigator of the Herschel Legacy Programme)
University of Sussex

Images and captions
One of the maps of the hidden universe created by the H-ATLAS team. The left-hand image shows one of the maps, in which two of the dimensions are positions in the sky and the third dimension is cosmic time. Each point shows one of the H-ATLAS galaxies. The right-hand image shows the H-ATLAS galaxies in a slice of cosmic time (the slice is shown by the box in the left-hand image). Below the right-hand figure, click on ‘increase z’ to travel backwards in time and on ‘decrease z’ to travel forwards in time. Credit: The H-ATLAS team, GAMA, Chris North

Further information

The new work will appear in papers by Bourne, N. et al. 2016, and Valiante, E. et al. 2016, both submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

Notes for Editors

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2016 (NAM 2016) takes place this year at the University of Nottingham from 27 June to 1 July. NAM 2016 brings together more than 500 space scientists and astronomers to discuss the latest research in their respective fields. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society, the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Follow the conference on Twitter
The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory. Follow STFC on Twitter.

This research has been funded by grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Cosmicdust, Cosmicism, Herschel Legacy Program projects funded by the European Union. The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The RAS accepts papers for its journals based on the principle of peer review, in which fellow experts on the editorial boards accept the paper as worth considering. The Society issues press releases based on a similar principle, but the organisations and scientists concerned have overall responsibility for their content.

Follow the RAS on Twitter