Launch dates

By Phil Plait | May 1, 2009 11:00 am

A lot of space missions are poised for launch right now! NASA has the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which will blast off no earlier than June 2, and the Hubble servicing mission for the Space Shuttle Atlantis is now scheduled for launch on May 11. I’ll have lots more about that soon.

Herschel and Planck
Herschel and Planck

The European Space Agency isn’t exactly taking it easy, either: Herschel and Planck are two astronomy missions that will launch on a single Ariane 5 rocket on May 14th.

Herschel is a massive infrared telescopic observatory with a 3.5 meter mirror, by far the largest infrared observatory ever put in space. It will look at far-infrared light, from 55 to 672 microns (our eyes are sensitive to light out to roughly 0.7 microns, so this is way out in the IR). For comparison, the awesome Spitzer telescope has a mirror 0.85 meters across, so Herschel will return incredible imagery of the sky. I can’t wait to see what it shows us!

Planck will map the entire sky at microwave frequencies, looking at the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. The NASA satellite WMAP did this a few years back and answered many questions about the physics of the early Universe, but as we have to come to expect in science, any new observations will also raise even more questions. Planck will have ten times the resolution that WMAP did, so it will see smaller features on the sky. It’s also more sensitive than WMAP was, so it will see fainter features as well. This means it may answer a lot of those questions WMAP raised.

Now get this: the Big Bang model is the best one we have to explain the origin of the Universe. But it does not tell us about how that moment occurred. Did the Universe get its start from a singular event, a quantum fluctuation in some larger metaverse? Are we the last in a series of past Big Bangs and recollapses (the last because we’re pretty sure the cosmic expansion will go on forever this time)? Are we here because two high-dimensional membranes collided?

WMAP map of the microwave sky

These questions stretch our brains to the breaking point… but the thing is, there is science here! These different ideas predict different structures in the background glow leftover from the Big Bang. WMAP saw many cooler and warmer spots on the sky in that microwave glow, equal numbers of them. But some theories say we should see just a hair more cold spots. WMAP did a fine job observing the sky, but it simply lacked the resolution to be able to see any asymmetries in the hot and cold spot numbers.

Planck may very well have the resolution needed to see that. Do you understand the implications? We may be on the verge of determining if the origin of the Universe was a singular event, or if it was due to some other mechanism.

We’re on the edge of "holy crap!" territory with this. We have progressed from last century’s having no clue about how the cosmos got its start, to now possibly being able to get a handle on what happened before the Big Bang.

That’s why I love science! Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say: baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (66)

  1. 3.5 meter mirror? That should produce some awesome pictures and science :-)

  2. I’ll be in Orlando on May 11th (Disney World – May 9th-16th). I wonder if I’ll be able to see the shuttle in the skies above Disney World during that time.

  3. CryoTank

    Wow, they are gonna shine some light (ha ha) on The Big Bang!
    May 11 and May 14, we’ll be expecting your coverage of both launches, of course :)

  4. CryoTank

    @Naked Bunny

    aaaaaaaahhhh, Space Nuts!!!!


  5. Gary Ansorge

    Questions not big enough? Try Enzyte,,,er,,,or maybe not,,,

    One proposal for the genesis of universes is that black holes are the source of new universes. If that is the case, I just want to know,,,should I invest in the new territory created inside these BHs??? ,,,and should I concentrate on beach front property???

    Is that a big enough question?

    GAry 7

  6. Steve A

    You forgot PharmaSat launching on the May 5:

    This is only 10 pounds!

  7. Anyone know what time on May 11th the shuttle will be launching? I tried to read the linked page but it didn’t give any time info.

  8. @Gary Ansorge

    One proposal for the genesis of universes is that black holes are the source of new universes. If that is the case, I just want to know,,,should I invest in the new territory created inside these BHs??? ,,,and should I concentrate on beach front property???

    I’ll need to bring a flag with me when they start the LHC so I can stake my claim to the new universe it’ll create.

  9. …And, of course, once I posted it I saw some folks on Twitter giving a 2PM Eastern time for the launch. I’ll point my camera to the skies at around 2PM and try to get a photo of the shuttle flying over Disney World. 😀

  10. Steve A

    Oh, and I forgot to say good luck to ESA. The Herschel/Plank has been delayed several times, the latest because of concerns with the rocket. It was a slight delay, so it probably wasn’t a big deal, but still. Good luck.

  11. Cheyenne

    Oh boy talk about putting your eggs in one basket. I hope they have that Araine rocket put together well. That is going to be a bit of a nail biter for all involved when they light that candle.

    “possibly being able to get a handle on what happened before the Big Bang”- but wasn’t time (and space) itself created in the Big Bang? Stephen Hawking once said that questioning what happened before the Big Bang is like asking what is north of the North Pole didn’t he? This whole universe creation thing seriously gives me the cosmic hibbie jeebies.

  12. serenity

    I’m pretty worried about the fact that they’re launching TWO very cool missions on a single rocket, though.

  13. While Phil’s enthusiasm for Planck is shared in the cosmology community, don’t spend all your exuberance yet: Just as with the Kepler mission it will take years before the actual (key) results from the mission will be published! Soon after launch and commissioning Planck will disappear from the media radar for several years before the good stuff is made public all at once.

    In contrast to WMAP which published early stuff and then had to retract some key numbers, the Planck team will keep their mouth shut until most of the work is done and has been reviewed. At least that’s what a leading scientist told us at an institute colloquium here recently.

  14. DC Bradshaw


    Yes, you should be able to see it launch! (if it does)

    If they do, surely there will be lots of other folks looking for it too, so just keep your eyes open during launch time and look to the north-northeast.

  15. Wayne


    Tell me about it, I still remember the day the first Ariane 5 blew up with the four Cluster spacecraft. Took years to refly that mission. Talk about some despondent scientists and grad students.

  16. Yes, you can not only see a shuttle launch from Orlando, but if you are in a reasonably quiet place, you can HEAR it from there! I saw a night launch (the Chandra launch mission) from a hotel near Orlando. It was about 2 minutes, 40 seconds after launch, I heard a low rumble and wondered if that was the sound of the shuttle. I kept listening and a little over a minute later, I heard the engines get louder as they went with throttle up!

    So don’t just look…listen!

  17. Steve A


    You said it. This launch method, a first for ESA, was chosen to cut down costs. Turned out in the end it was actually more expensive. According to the BBC, it costs them about a million euros a day when it is delayed. There might be some more, too. If the rocket sits on the launch pad for more than a day, say because of weather, the rocket needs to be taken off to refuel the super-fluid helium that cools Herschel.


    Love this stuff!

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Now I’m mystified. I am pretty sure that I read, on several places, that the ekpyrotic and cyclic models were pretty much dead already after the WMAP 5-year release last year. IIRC they are hard to get predictions out of, while inflation does that trick.

    So I have presumed Turok et al started to shout to be heard (i.e. invested more time to get opinion pieces out).

    OTOH AFAIU inflation isn’t exactly confirmed either, IIRC there is still some way to go for > 3 sigma assuming there is an independent model. And while, I think, WMAP 5 year release started to do exactly that job, to constrain inflation (i.e. falsified some models, see for example Tegmark’s web pages), it didn’t finish the job either.

    Sean Carroll @ Cosmic Variance on the 5 year release:

    “Perhaps the most intriguing result is that the scalar spectral index n is 0.95 +- 0.02. This tells you the amplitude of fluctuations as a function of scale; if n=1, the amplitude is the same on all scales. Slightly less than one means that there is slightly less power on smaller scales. The reason why this is intriguing is that, according to inflation, it’s quite likely that n is not exactly 1.

    Although we don’t have any strong competitors to inflation as a theory of initial conditions, the successful predictions of inflation have to date been somewhat “vanilla” — a flat universe, a flat perturbation spectrum. This expected deviation from perfect scale-free behavior is exactly what you would expect if inflation were true. The statistical significance isn’t what it could be quite yet, but it’s an encouraging sign.” [My bold.]

    Bu I would love to hear from other cosmologists on this.

    baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.

    How true.

  20. Sean


    Well spoken!

    I would put the creation myth into the category of “Not asking big enough questions.”

    By jumping from “Where did the world come from?” directly to “God made it.”, we miss out on a another possibility: that there is a mechanism behind the creation and evolution of the Universe that we can explore and understand.

    I think what we already KNOW about the Universe is 1000 times more interesting, subtle and beautiful than the received “wisdom” we get from our creation myths.


  21. Murdats

    So soon we will have the answer to the universe part of “life, the universe and everything”? 1 down two more big questions to go.

  22. Steve A

    I knew I read something about what you are saying before. Check out:

  23. Well, since we may be getting answers on the multiverse as well (assuming that is a viable model), wouldn’t that include everything? So 2 out of 3 ain’t bad!

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    One proposal for the genesis of universes is that black holes are the source of new universes.

    IIRC [I really have to start saving references; conversely, please correct me if I’m wrong] string models of black holes put them as more of coherent quantum objects by themselves. In any case I believe the current idea is that they wouldn’t open up as “white holes” into, or as sourcing, other universes. (So for example Smolin’s cosmic selection multiverse cosmology, by way of ‘fecund’ black holes taking over such a spawning process, looks iffy.)

    Stephen Hawking once said that questioning what happened before the Big Bang is like asking what is north of the North Pole didn’t he?

    That would be in relation to his “no boundary proposal”, I believe.

    But AFAIU the natural ground state of simpler inflation models is chaotic inflation. I.e. if you don’t assume (much of, see below) any new physics it seems to be a consistent model to have ever expanding inflationary volumes of spacetime that, where ending, looks like the ending of a big bang inflation. So looking back in time it would still look like the observable part of a local pocket universe started out from within a Planck volume.

    Now I believe that this is equivalent to claiming that inflation works on Planck volume scale as well as slightly larger scales. But why not; presumably gravitation (and for example string theory) works that way too?!

    [The WMAP data is AFAIU most consistent with such simpler inflation models, and have falsified some more complicated ones.]

    It could be that Hawking’s real problem is that his questions aren’t big enough. :-O

  25. !astralProjectile

    Wow, although apparently Herschel can see longer IR than that; I’d call that microwave:

    HIFI (Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared), a high-resolution spectrometer; PACS (Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer) and SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging REceiver), PACS and SPIRE are both cameras and imaging spectrometers. Together, these instruments cover 55–672 microns. Their detectors will be cooled to temperatures very close to absolute zero.

  26. Sili

    Isn’t Planck gonna have the ability to look at the polarisation of the microwaves too? Yet another detail we haven’t pinned down yet.

    God, how I love the CMB. Kepler, eat your heart out.

  27. QUASAR

    These are the ones I told you about!

  28. Chris C.

    Isn’t it at least as exciting that a singular event, or quantum fluctuation could result in at least several billions of sentient beings interested in finding answers about that beginning? I think there are big questions at BOTH ends of the telescope.

  29. coolstar

    Wow, how wrong can one BAD ASTRONOMER be? Listen to Torbjörn Larsson on this folks, string theory makes NO PREDICTIONS that Planck will be able to test. Way to fall for the hype, Phil. This is not to say that Planck won’t be extremely valuable for testing cosmological theories tied to real science.

  30. Sili

    Oooops. No polarisation on Planck. Damn my memory. Sorry.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Listen to Torbjörn Larsson on this folks, string theory makes NO PREDICTIONS that Planck will be able to test.

    That wasn’t what I said.

    [In fact I googled some old paper of Kallosh and Linde that mentions indirect constraints, observations that would be problematical for the then models. But that may have changed. ]

  32. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Oops, on another tab from the search I see a 2008 paper by Kallosh that in the abstract claims: “I will argue that at present all known string theory inflation models predict tensor modes well below the level of detection. Therefore a possible experimental discovery of tensor modes may present a challenge to string cosmology. ”

    So perhaps that is a testable feature of string theory.

  33. Gavin Flower


    M-Theory of strings is the only family of theories that successfully combine General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics without producing nonsensical predictions, also gravity is a natural consequence of M-Theory.

    However, M-Theory is fiendishly difficult mathematically so we often have to deal with rough approximations.

    Before people write off M-Theory, they should come up with something that is better, rather than simply insist that M-Theory is too difficult to be useful.

    There is no law of Nature that says Reality will always be easily understandable by humans!

  34. Kurt Erlenbach

    Techydad- I urge you to take the drive over to the coast to watch the shuttle launch on May 11. It’s about an hour from Disney to Titusville, which is the best place to watch a launch. It is a sight you will not forget. And far better than Disney, anyhow.

  35. The Other David M.

    Combined cost for these two missions – $2B.

    Going back to the “Obama Boosts Science Funding, What About NASA?” thread, compare the science return on investment for these telescopes compared to the ISS.

  36. ethanol

    Herschel will operate in the 55-180 micron range? That’s well beyond the range where it can perform chemical analysis, and even beyond the usual range for thermal imaging applications. The proposed James Webb telescope wouldn’t operate this far into the infrared. Anyone know what it’s for?

  37. madge

    Thanks BA I was going to post details on my OU forum but you have done it for me. I will send ’em all here. Will you be live webchatting or Twittering any of the nasa launches?

  38. Stuart

    @Sili, you were correct the first time; Planck does detect polarization.

  39. gss_000

    @ The Other David M.


    You mean, science return like being able to detect brain cancer:

    Yup. Saving humans live really is no scientific return.

  40. What a time to be alive. In the next few year we may have understanding of how the universe began and we may find the first terra nova. Yet some numbskull will still try and sell a Cheesus on Toast on Ebay.

  41. The Other David M.

    @ gss_000

    I’m glad that all of that money spent on the ISS/Shuttle have paid off to *possibly* help in the war on cancer.

    After all…
    ISS/Shuttle budget 2009 $5.78B
    NIH Cancer budget 2008 $5.57B

    So we’re spending roughly the same amount on keeping the ISS maintained as we are on funding the NIH’s war on Cancer. Again, what’s the return on investment here? Have we gotten more science out of the ISS, or out of the NIH’s cancer funding? (And let’s not forget to add another $3.5B to NASA’s manned spaceflight budget in the form of funding for Ares.)

  42. coolstar

    My apologies Torbjörn as I read more into what you DID say than what you meant. Still, you might want to check out what Peter Woit has to say about Planck and string theory (and string theory in general, on his blog Not Even Wrong (wonderful title that) . And I stand by my assertions that a) Phil (a professional skeptic, no less) has fallen for the hype and B) string theory makes no predictions that will be testable by Plank (ruling out one (or a LOT more than one) of 10**500 universes in the “landscape” clearly doesn’t count).

  43. Benjamin Geiger

    TechyDad: Yes, you’ll be able to see the launch from Disney, assuming your view isn’t obstructed and you’re able to tell which way east is. My dad works for the Mouse and lives just southwest, and we can see launches from the front yard.

    I do intend to go see a shuttle launch sometime before they end.

  44. MadScientist

    I hope the Arianne launch goes well – ‘piggyback’ = cheaper launch, but if the launch fails then two groups lose their birds. Anyone got tickets to see the launch? (I’m guessing it will be from Korou?)

  45. MadScientist

    @ethanol: It’s obviously for listening to thermal radiation of fairly cold bodies; there’s no reason you can’t do chemical analysis there, after all we’re dealing with simple gases. I’d expect the project web sites to give more information about the instrumentation.

  46. MadScientist

    Some corrections:

    “It will look at far-infrared light, from 55 to 180 microns” [Herschel]

    According to the mission site:

    the complement of instruments will cover 55-672 microns – that’s well into the ‘submillimeter’ wave region (which people either call Far IR or Radio, depending on who you ask and what their job is). The name ‘submillimeter’ is dubious anyway since 0.532 microns (green) is obviously submillimeter, and so is X-ray …

  47. gss_000

    @The Other David M.

    I’m sorry, but your logic here is just plain baffling.

    So a study result derived from ISS tech, that also has been used to detect lung cancer in another study, is only a “possible” benefit. Yet telescopes that haven’t even launched or produced any results, and won’t for awhile, are a great return on investments?

    You have made an arbitrary decision about what is valuable and what is a good return. In the past year alone, there have been several manned spaceflight applications that could affect millions of people in the near future, a lot sooner than any information about what the Universe was like before humans ever existed will.

    In the past year alone, we have research that can be used to treat lung cancer, brain cancer, arthritis, salmonella, and sleep studies, let alone with crop production (AgCam), and a test the panspermia theory (Expose). This is also ignoring that ISS is doing work to help develop unmanned research technology as well. Look at the SPHERES project, which is testing how autonomous small satellites can work in a distributive system.

    You can’t limit research and scientific value to only certain fields, these studies and experiments are going to open doors to a lot of areas, like Herschel, Planck, and any other unmanned program will. You don’t know what the results or applications can be, which makes investment into the manned space program just as important and valuable as unmanned. Otherwise, your argument is just as valid as those who say studying Mars or the Big Bang or building a particle accelerator is a waste of money when it could be applied to poverty and disease here on Earth.

  48. MadScientist: you’re right, and I fixed that. I must’ve put in the range for one of the instruments, not the whole observatory!

  49. The Other David M.

    @ gss_000

    My point is that money spent on manned spaceflight is large compared to what the government spends on other science. I’d love to take some of that AIG money too, but at least those jerks aren’t trying to pretend they are doing science.

    Do you really believe that we are getting more science out of shuttle/ISS than we are the entire freaking NSF? Can you ballpark me a number? “I believe that shuttle/ISS are giving us 100% compared to the NSF.” Or is it “I believe that shuttle/ISS are giving us 10% compared to the NSF.”? I’d say its even less than that…

    Look, if you want to say “I think we should spend money on manned spaceflight because it’s great entertainment” or “because it’s uplifting” or “because it shows the USA is better than China or Russia” then argue along those lines. But trying to claim that manned spaceflight is a good investment of science money is nuts.

    For roughly 1000 man-days a year, we are spending $5.8B, so $5.8M per astronaut per day. That can run a medium-to-large group at a research university for three years. What’s going to give you more science, one day worth of astronaut, or those three years?

  50. “What’s going to give you more science, one day worth of astronaut, or those three years?”

    Depends on how many schoolkids see the astronaut do his or her thing.

    Look past the end of your goddamned nose, will you?

  51. Cheyenne

    @CrazyChicken –

    Isn’t insanity doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result? Manned missions in the past 20 or 30 years have given us marginal science at best and not a single large scientific discovery (unlike the unmanned ones). Why do we continue to waste huge resources on something that doesn’t give us anything except (supposedly) “inspiration” to children?

    PS – You think kids actually know the astronauts of today? Their names or what they do? All of NASA’s headlines and front page news (again, just about the manned programs) are about cost overruns and problems. They surely aren’t screaming out the wonderful discoveries and achievements that are being made (the one exception of course will be Hubble – but that is the last time a bird like that will be serviced in this way).

  52. Cheyenne

    @The Other David-

    “For roughly 1000 man-days a year, we are spending $5.8B, so $5.8M per astronaut per day. That can run a medium-to-large group at a research university for three years. What’s going to give you more science, one day worth of astronaut, or those three years?”

    That’s a pretty sobering statistic.

  53. gss_000

    @ Cheyenne

    “You think kids actually know the astronauts of today? Their names or what they do? All of NASA’s headlines and front page news (again, just about the manned programs) are about cost overruns and problems.”

    Wrong. Just because you are ignorant of something doesn’t make it true. Every day, you see stories about astronauts visiting and speaking with students. Every story has those kids impressed by the visits. Maybe they are not in the big papers, but on a local level it means something. Thousands are visited or interact with students every year. You think that has no impact? Yes, kids know what astronauts do. Check out the Explorer Schools program.

    @The Other David M.

    “Do you really believe that we are getting more science out of shuttle/ISS than we are the entire freaking NSF? ”

    Only you are making this an either/or. That somehow the science from one source is better than science from another source is a small and self-defeating viewpoint. It limits what you can discover and the applications that be created.

    Here’s an example. Manned spaceflight inspires people to go into space. Because of that, suborbital space tourism is now being developed. Because of that, NASA is now helping to open up a whole new field of research because of the opportunities becoming available by placing scientific payloads on Virgin Galactic planes. And b

    Again, you arbitrarily have decided that engineering has no value. Look at how you’re calculating your numbers. You only count the astronauts, but what about the engineers who build and test the rockets? They aren’t doing science? The tests that go into that have applications as well. And NASA exploration money goes to outside science labs and companies as well as in house, just like the NSF does.

    So tell me, how much is a supplement found in 90% of baby formula in the US today worth (life’sDHA and life’sARA)? What about a shoe that will help elderly people not fall that is being tested (iShoe)? Or shuttle-derived aerodynamics research that helps with today’s trucks (airtabs)? Only you are saying this has little value, even though its in use every day life.

    I’m not putting NSF beneath NASA. Both have their place and uses. It’s just being biased against manned spaceflight makes you ignore how you are using its tech every day.

  54. waicool

    My wife and I “unsubsribed” from Discover years ago. I am surprised them knuckleheads didn’t blame the republicans for these cosmic uncertainties. The Big Bang theory is based on faulty logic. There is ebb and flow to all cosmic movement. To extrapolate (in reverse) the expansion of the universe back to a single physical point is senseless and foolish. Keep it simple stupid.


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