StarDate: April 9, 2009

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Residents of the Great Plains are no strangers to dust storms at this time of year. Cold fronts can stir up great clouds of dust that are tough to see through.

The environments around some stars and galaxies are also filled with dust -- environments that are giving birth to new stars and planets. To study these nurseries, astronomers must look at them in wavelengths other than visible light.

HELOU: Visible light does not penetrate into them. You need to be able to go into longer wavelengths for the same reason that red light comes into the atmosphere better than blue light. As you go to longer wavelengths, to the infrared and eventually to the submillimeter, you can see deeper and deeper into these dense, dusty cores. [:18]

That's George Helou, director of NASA's Herschel Science Center. Herschel is a space-based observatory that's scheduled for launch this month. With the largest telescope ever launched into space, and instruments cooled to near absolute zero, it'll detect the heat coming from these dusty environments -- from vigorous young galaxies, and from stellar nurseries.

HELOU: It will allow us to look inside star-forming clouds, planet-forming clouds, and decipher what's going on with the chemistry and therefore the physics....And it's not too much of a stretch of the imagination to expect that maybe we'll discover more complex molecules, possibly pre-biotic molecules -- the kinds of things we know can grow in interstellar space, but we have not been able to get to the most complex cases and analyze them. [:28]

So Herschel will give us new insights not only into how stars are born, but into the chemistry of life, too.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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