Naylor, U of L researchers contribute to latest space find

Compelling new images from the Herschel Space Telescope – parked more than 1.5 million kilometres from earth and facing into deep space – are showing researchers what the formation of our solar system must have looked like at its early stages: a violent, comet-laden disk of debris where thousands of 1 km wide chunks of ice collide and spin around a young star.

The images are made possible in part by technology created by University of Lethbridge researchers and designed and built by an international consortium of space agencies, universities and research institutes.

It would be a great 273rd birthday gift for Sir William Herschel, a legendary astronomer and researcher, and the telescope's namesake.

"One of the leading questions in astronomy is 'how do planets form around stars?'," says Dr. David Naylor, a University of Lethbridge Physics and Astronomy researcher, and designer of SPIRE ((S)pectral and (P)hotometric (I)maging (RE)ceiver), a device that gathers infrared images and converts them into tangible data that defines what far-off stars and solar systems are made of.

The European Space Agency's images, which were just released yesterday (Herschel's birthday) show spectacular images of the debris disk surrounding a nearby star, called Fomalhaut.

"The disk surrounding it is actually a very large and violent place, where we have counted more than 2000 comets more than 1 km wide crashing into each other – every day," adds Naylor. "The key idea is that, as the result of those crashes, the larger pieces form into an orbit over time. We can now see this all more clearly because Herschel gives us the best view yet of how our own solar system might have formed."

Fomalhaut is a young star, just a few hundred million years old, and twice as massive as the Sun. Its dust belt was discovered in the 1980s but Herschel's new images show it in much more detail than ever before.

The images can be viewed at this website.

Naylor, who also serves as the Space Astronomy Director of the Institute for Space Imaging Science (a partnership between the U of L, Athabasca University and the University of Calgary) added that, while the debris disks have been well-known to exist and have been measured to some extent by past explorations, the level of detail of these large icy bodies can only be observed at the far infrared wavelengths detected by Herschel.

"In our solar system, apart from the well-known planets, moons and asteroids, there are many smaller small icy bodies that exist beyond the orbit of Neptune in what is known as the Kuiper belt. These icy bodies are thought to give rise to short period comets and to represent the physical conditions of the primordial solar nebula that existed before our sun was born," he says.

Naylor is the Canadian Principal Investigator of Herschel SPIRE and co-developer of the SPIRE instrument. His team was responsible for evaluating the performance of the instrument prior to launch and in orbit.