From Deep Space, Two New Telescopes Will Study the "Cold Universe"

By Eliza Strickland | May 13, 2009 10:20 am

Herschel and PlanckNASA’s astronauts blasted off just yesterday on a final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, but two space-based telescopes scheduled to rocket into space tomorrow may soon steal the spotlight from the Hubble. The two European Space Agency observatories, named Herschel and Planck, may revolutionize our understanding of how galaxies formed in the young universe, shortly after the Big Bang. Once the telescopes are in place, says ESA science director David Southwood, the next era of space-based astronomy will then be well and truly upon us. “They are at a pivotal point,” he says. “From now on astronomy is going to be done from deep space” [Nature News].

Both telescopes will be carried into space by the same Ariane 5 rocket, which is expected to launch tomorrow from a spaceport in French Guiana. The destination for both telescopes is a remarkable position in space known as the second Lagrangian point (L2). It is one of five gravitational “sweet-spots” around the Sun-Earth system where satellites can maintain station by making relatively few orbital corrections. L2 is some 1.5 million km from Earth on its “night side”. The observatories will circle this point [BBC News], orbiting at different distances to rule out any chance of a collision. At that stable location, the telescopes will be protected from temperature swings; a crucial point since both telescopes must be kept at frigid temperatures to study the “cold universe.”

Herschel, named for British astronomer William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, will sweep the entire sky every six months over a three-year period. It will build the most accurate map ever made of the cosmos. Because light from very old and distant objects is stretched out toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum, Herschel’s infrared vision will let it see stars and galaxies as they were forming billions of years ago [Miami Herald]. Herschel will peer into the cold clouds of interstellar dust and gas that gradually gave rise to “protostars,” star precursors that emit infrared radiation. The telescope will be kept at 0.3 degrees kelvin with a huge sun shield and supercooled helium so that it can detect the tiny rise in heat as the radiation comes in.

The Planck spacecraft, named after famed German physicist Max Planck, has been described as the “coolest spaceship ever built”. Its instruments will be chilled to within a tenth of a degree of absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible in nature. It will then hover in space a million miles from Earth, searching the skies for faint traces of radiation left over from the universe’s explosive big bang birth 14 billion years ago. The aim is to discover how matter first formed and later coalesced into stars, galaxies and, finally, living things [The Guardian].

Related Content:
80beats: Space Shuttle Will Blast Off Today for Hubble’s Final Repair Mission
80beats: Spacecraft Will Search for Evidence of a Hypothetical Lost Planet
80beats: Kepler Sends Postcards Home: It’s Beautiful Out Here

Image: ESA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Joe Dirt

    When will they reach orbit? When will we receive the first bits of data?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Hey, Joe –

    It will take a little over 6 weeks to get the telescopes into their respective orbits. (This BBC article explains the whole process of how they’ll be “parked.”) And then the scientists have to check all the instruments to be sure they’re working, so it will take a few months before real data starts coming back.

  • http://www.miamipcsolutions.com mr. miamipcrepairs

    Great info and if you are ever in Miami and need computer repairs let me know!! We are the best in Miami computer repairs!

  • http://delicious.com/gregory1695dennis Sally Trudeau

    thank you for the information, it was a good read

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