SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research

Our mission is to bring about breakthroughs in international space research

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SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research

SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research

SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research

Our mission is to bring about breakthroughs in international space research

SEE MORE

SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research

BOTH SRON BUILDINGS, IN GRONINGEN AND UTRECHT, ARE CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE

LATEST NEWS

ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory has revealed the chemical fingerprints of potential life-enabling organic molecules in the Orion Nebula, a nearby stellar nursery in our Milky Way galaxy. This detailed-spectrum, obtained with the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI) - one of Herschel's three innovative instruments - demonstrates the gold mine of information that Herschel-HIFI will provide on how organic molecules form in space.

The spectrum, one of the first to be obtained with HIFI since it returned to full health in January 2010 following technical difficulties, clearly demonstrates that the instrument is working well. Striking features in the HIFI spectrum include a rich, dense pattern of “spikes”, each representing the emission of light from a specific molecule in the Orion Nebula. This nebula is known to be one of the most prolific chemical factories in space, although the full extent of its chemistry and the pathways for molecule formation are not well understood. By sifting through the pattern of spikes in this spectrum, astronomers have identified a few common molecules that appear everywhere in the spectrum. The identification of the many other emission lines is currently ongoing.

herschel_hifi_orion_dataplot_r3_1.jpg
Long caption: The HIFI spectrum of the Orion Nebula, superimposed on a Spitzer image of Orion. A characteristic feature is the spectral richness: among the organic molecules identified in this spectrum are water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur oxide, sulphur dioxide and their isotope analogues. It is expected that new molecules will also be identified. This spectrum is the first glimpse at the spectral richness of regions of star and planet formation. It harbours the promise of a deep understanding of the chemistry of space once the complete spectral surveys are available (ESA, HEXOS and the HIFI consortium)
By clearly identifying the lines associated with the more common molecules, astronomers can then begin to tease out the signature of particularly interesting molecules that are the direct precursors to life-enabling molecules. A characteristic feature of the Orion spectrum is the spectral richness: among the molecules that can be identified in this spectrum are water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur oxide, sulphur dioxide and their isotope analogues. It is expected that new organic molecules will also be identified.

“This HIFI spectrum, and the many more to come, will provide a virtual treasure trove of information regarding the overall chemical inventory and on how organics form in a region of active star formation. It harbours the promise of a deep understanding of the chemistry of space once we have the full spectral surveys available,” said Edwin Bergin of the University of Michigan, principal investigator of the HEXOS Key Programme on Herschel.

Unprecedented high resolution
HIFI was designed to provide extremely high-resolution spectra and to open new wavelength ranges for investigation, which are inaccessible to ground-based telescopes. “It is astonishing to see how well HIFI works," said Frank Helmich, HIFI principal investigator of SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research. "We obtained this spectrum in a few hours and it already beats any other spectrum, at any other wavelength, ever taken of Orion.

herschel_hifi_orion_dataplot_r3blowouts_3.jpg
The HIFI spectrum of water and organics in the Orion Nebula, with blow outs
Organics are everywhere in this spectrum, even at the lowest levels, which hints at the fidelity of HIFI. The development of HIFI took eight years but it was really worth waiting for.”

“HIFI’s unprecedented high resolution and stability allows us to construct very detailed models of the density and temperature structure of star-forming clouds," said Tom Phillips of the California Institute for Technology. "This view allows us to pierce the veil of star formation and more directly study the chemistry associated with the birth of stars, planets, and in some sense, life.”

The spectrum was obtained only one month after HIFI resumed operations on-board Herschel. In August 2009, HIFI experienced an unexpected voltage spike in the electronic system, probably caused by a high-energy cosmic particle, resulting in the instrument shutting down. The mission team studied the problem and developed a solution that prevents harmful side-effects of this type of event. On 14 January, 2010, HIFI was successfully switched back on using its spare electronics and restarted a sequence of testing and verification, ahead of science observations commencing on 28 February. It now rejoins the other two Herschel instruments, SPIRE and PACS, in their exploration of the far-infrared Universe.

Sophisticated databases
Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia, with important participation from NASA.HIFI, a high resolution spectrometer was designed and built by a nationally-funded consortium led by SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research. The consortium includes institutes from France, Germany, USA, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

Identification of the many spectral features visible in the Orion spectrum with transitions of particular molecular species requires sophisticated molecular spectroscopy databases, which collect the results from many years of laboratory spectroscopy work. The assignments for this HIFI spectrum were made using the Cologne Database of Molecular Spectroscopy (CDMS) and an equivalent database maintained at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This HIFI spectrum was obtained for the Herschel HEXOS Key Programme – a scientific investigation using the Herschel HIFI and PACS instruments to perform full line surveys of five sources in the Orion and Sagittarius B2 molecular clouds. The scientific rights of these Herschel observations are owned by the HEXOS consortium, led by E. Bergin (University of Michigan).

Additional information
For more information please contact dr. Frank Helmich, principal investigator for HIFI, tel. 06-49423644, mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or drs. Frans Stravers, spokesman of SRON, tel. +31 (0)88 777 5892 /06-52679395, mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

RESEARCH

SRON has four programme lines, Astrophysics, ExoplanetsEarth, and Technology, with science groups attached, and two expertise groups, Instrument science and Engineering.

ASTROPHYSICS

The Astrophysics programme at SRON is dedicated to unraveling the history of the universe, from the first stars and black holes to large-scale structure.

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EXOPLANETS

The Exoplanets programme is dedicated to atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system and is an in-between of SRON's Astrophysics and Earth programmes.

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EARTH

The Earth programme is aimed at the climate and air quality of planet Earth, with focus on the global carbon cycle and aerosols.

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ENGINEERING

The Engineering group covers SRON's skills and know-how with regard to product assurance, quality assurance, configuration control, design engineering – electronic & mechanical – and parts procurement. It is an expertise group that provides resources for all SRON instrument projects.

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INSTRUMENT SCIENCE

The Instrument science group covers SRON's skills and know-how with regard to instrument physics, system engineering (up to full-instrument level) and project management. It is an expertise group that provides resources for all SRON instrument projects.

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TECHNOLOGY

The Technology programme is SRON's backbone for the development of enabling technology.

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SRON’s mission is to bring about breakthroughs in international space research 

Therefore the institute develops pioneering technology and advanced space instruments, and uses them to pursue fundamental astrophysical research, Earth science and exoplanetary research. As national expertise institute SRON gives counsel to the Dutch government and coordinates - from a science standpoint - national contributions to international space missions. SRON stimulates the implementation of space science in our society.



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