Telescope peers at the final frontier

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The Independent Online
The frontiers of space were pushed back on two fronts yesterday, by a telescope which orbits the earth at freezing temperatures and takes infrared pictures of distant stars, and by a series of 16in mirror telescopes in a muddy field in Cambridgeshire.

The Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), launched in November by the European Space Agency (ESA) may hold the secret to how the Sun and Earth were born, the agency said yesterday.

Meanwhile, a team based five miles south-west of Cambridge has produced the first images of the star Capella, in the constellation of Auriga.

The team's telescope, Coast - Cambridge Optical Aperture Synthesis - consists of four small telescopes with 16in mirrors, each of which is spaced six to seven metres apart and pointed at the same object.

Their light is then combined and minutely compared to create an image of the object.As the beams are merged they interfere with each other and produce patterns, which are decoded and turned into an image.

The Cambridge team says Coast is able to "see" detail five times better than the American Hubble Space Telescope, although the entire system costs only pounds 850,000.

The Infrared Space Observatory sent back its first pictures yesterday, including colliding galaxies and exploding stars which are invisible to normal telescopes, astronomers at ESA's satellite tracking station near Madrid said.

The infrared device has been able to look into the dense dust clouds which form when galaxies crash together or stars are born. These are opaque to visible light, so that even Hubble is blind to them. But the ISO can analyse the contents of these dust clouds and measure their temperature, information which astronomers hope will help them understand how our own galaxy, the Milky Way, created the conditions for life.

The ESA described its observatory as a triumph of "heroic engineering".