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But Hubble's sensitive new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), the only one of its kind, has dramatically improved the quality of information regarding the gaseous envelope of galaxies, Tripp says. This huge gain in precision is one of the enormous accomplishments of the COS mission. "Even 10 years ago, most of the mass of a galaxy was invisible to us and such detailed investigations were impossible." the UMass Amherst astronomer points out. "With COS, in a sense we now have the ability to see the rest of the iceberg, not just the tip. This is a very exciting time to be an astronomer."
With the new spectrograph we can see galaxy halos out to at least 150,000 parsecs," says Tripp. One kiloparsec is about 19 trillion miles. "Where once we saw only the framework we are now getting a more complete picture, including the composition and movement of gases in the envelope, varying temperatures in different locations and the chemical structure, all in incredible detail," Tripp adds.
In particular, data on the chemical composition and temperature in the gas clouds allow the astronomers to calculate a galaxy's halo mass and how the gaseous envelope regulates the galaxy's evolution.
Galaxies are the birthplaces of stars, each with a dense, visible central core and a huge envelope, or halo, around it containing extremely low-density gases. Until now, most of the mass in the envelope, as much as 90 percent of all mass in a galaxy, was undetectable by any instrument on Earth.