Sometimes, distractions can be useful in themselves. That’s the message this week from the Planck space telescope, which has a mighty big mission: to take baby pictures of the universe. While it hasn’t yet accomplished that task, the preliminary disturbances that Planck scientists are now dealing with are yielding cosmic insights of their own.
Orbiting the Sun roughly 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, the Planck space-based telescope is scanning the sky for ultra-cold objects. Its instruments are chilled to just a tenth of a degree above absolute zero and are designed to pick up the faint microwave afterglow from the Big Bang, which scientists hope can tell them about the earliest moments of the Universe. [Nature News]
Planck was launched in spring of 2009 by the European Space Agency, and it’s still gathering data to complete its chart of this cosmic microwave background (CMB); researchers hope the map will shed light on the young universe’s brief “inflationary” period when it expanded extremely rapidly. At the moment, however, Planck is busy detecting other sources of microwaves so that it can subtract this “foreground” radiation from its map of the background.
So what are some of these sources?
The European Space Agency’s Planck observatory has reached its operating temperature of a mere tenth of a degree above the lowest temperature theoretically possible given the laws of physics, known as absolute zero. That means it’s ready for its mission: Observing the oldest light in the universe, known as the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, to create the clearest picture yet of what the young universe looked like.
Although scientists have achieved temperatures closer than this to absolute zero in the laboratory, the spacecraft is likely the coldest object in space. Such low temperatures are necessary for Planck’s detectors to study the Cosmic Microwave Background by measuring its temperature across the sky. Over the next few weeks, mission operators will fine-tune the spacecraft’s instruments. Planck will begin to survey the sky in mid-August [SPACE.com], and the first batch of data is expected to be released next year. Planck was launched May 14 and will observe the CMB from a spot more than 930,000 miles from Earth.
NASA’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.”