Over the past year I have been working on a series of science video podcasts (or vodcasts), with Jon Yardley and Olivia Gomez. There are lots of vodcasts available in the world of science but I wanted to make some which were fun and accessibe but did not turn down the volume on the science. The idea of the Teapots from Space came into being as a vehicle for telling different scientific stories. The Teapots are like a cross between a sci-fi B-movie and Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Nothing is taken too seriously, but the science is all correct.
This week, a number of scientists have gathered in Madrid to discuss the first science results from the Herschel Space Telescope. Herschel is the largest astronomical telescope ever put in space (the mirror is 3.5m wide!) and observes light at infrared to submillimetre wavelengths (50 - 550 microns), around 500 times larger than the wavelength of visible light. Astronomers built this telescope to observe cold objects (shining at 10K or -260C) in the Universe, since these sources radiate at this wavelength. Herschel will detect hidden star formation, cold gas, molecules and atoms, planets, Solar-System objects and invisible stardust - the building blocks of planets and even life. Stardust is very important in galaxies, it only makes up a tiny fraction of their mass (about 1%), but profoundly affects its view. Half of all the light shone by stars in galaxies is absorbed by stardust, hidden from our optical telescopes and re-radiated at infrared-submillimetre wavelengths. If we use only optical telescopes alone, we are missing half the light! Telescopes like Herschel allow us to directly see the stardust shining and therefore observe sources which are invisible to our optical telescopes.
Since Herschel was launched on May 14th this year, astronomers across the globe have been working hard to test the instrument and find out if it's working correctly. Herschel has given us an amazing glimpse of its power during these Performance Verification and Science Demonstration phases, and these show that Herschel is doing better than expected with some beautiful images of the far-infrared sky. This week, however, is the first time we get a chance to learn about some scientific results based on the observations taken so far. All I can say is, "wow". Here's an update on the latest results.