How astronomy in Scotland helps us understand the birth of galaxies

By Anne McNaught

Nearly a million miles away, the Herschel Space Observatory – the world's largest space telescope – is scanning the sky, collecting images from the edge of the universe. It has already spied more galaxies in their star-forming phase than ever seen before, and this week teams from Europe, North America and China are gathering at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh to take stock and decide where it should look next.

Meanwhile, Professor Rob Ivison, a researcher at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, sets off from South Edinburgh on his daily commute to the furthest reaches of space...

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Commuting to the stars

Follow Professor Rob Ivison on his journey to work at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, where he discusses new astronomical instrumentation developed in Scotland. BBC World Affairs Correspondent Allan Little describes some of the key moments from his career and answer questions about what it is like to report the world in an age of conflict. Bill Boyd reads his poem Hogmanay, written in the style of Robert Burns.

Engineers in space

Exploring the skies in the 21st Century has to be a partnership of astronomy and technical expertise. Astronomers can know what they want to look at, but to see further and further into space requires extremely precise equipment – and if they don't have that kind of kit, they're stuck.

The Royal Observatory Edinburgh is home to the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, with 50 engineers specialising in astronomical instrumentation, large and small: large being those designed to stay on the ground; very small if they're headed for space.

Engineers in Edinburgh developed a piece of equipment, the 'Beam Steering Mechanism', which is now on board Herschel, and the spin-off benefit from this is that Edinburgh astronomers are thereby entitled to extra "telescope time" for observations.

In addition, currently being built on site is KMOS, a component destined for the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Herschel telescope
Rob with KMOS
Herschel telescope
Prototype of the beam steering mechanism

More about Herschel

The Herschel Space Observatory was launched onboard the Ariane-5 rocket in May 2009.

Herschel telescope and mirror
Herschel telescope (l) and the mirror at its heart (r). Credit: ESA

It's the most powerful telescope ever made ("...that we're allowed to know about!" quips Rob), featuring a pristine 3.5m wide mirror which reflects the starry images into the telescope for transmission down to Earth. Unlike other telescopes, such as Hubble, the Herschel telescope detects far infrared signals rather than light from stars, so it's in essence a "heat" camera.

Herschel's mission is to study how stars and galaxies are born so that scientists can better understand the way the universe is today. An infrared telescope is ideally suited to this, because new stars warm up the dust around them as they form – and Herschel can detect this heat while seeing through the dust itself.

The coming years will also see the creation of state-of-the-art instrumentation for the colossal 40m wide European Extremely Large Telescope, and for the James Webb Space Telescope – Hubble's successor.

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