One of the newest telescopes in space, the Planck spacecraft, recently completed its “first light” survey which began on August 13. Astronomers say the initial data, gathered from Planck’s vantage point at the L2 point in space, is excellent. Planck is studying the Cosmic Microwave Background, looking for variations in temperature that are about a million times smaller than one degree. This is comparable to measuring from Earth the body heat of a rabbit sitting on the Moon.
The initial survey yielded maps of a strip of the sky, one for each of Planck’s nine frequencies. Each map is a ring, about 15° wide, stretching across the full sky.
The the differences in color in the strips indicate the magnitude of the deviations of the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background from its average value, as measured by Planck at a frequency close to the peak of the CMB spectrum (red is hotter and blue is colder).
The large red strips trace radio emission from the Milky Way, whereas the small bright spots high above the galactic plane correspond to emission from the Cosmic Microwave Background itself.
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In order to do its work, Planck’s detectors must be cooled to extremely low temperatures, some of them being very close to absolute zero (–273.15°C, or zero Kelvin, 0K).
Routine operations are now underway, and surveying will continue for at least 15 months without a break. In approximately 6 months, the first all-sky map will be assembled.
Within its projected operational life of 15 months, Planck will gather data for two complete sky maps. To fully exploit the high sensitivity of Planck, the data will require delicate adjustments and careful analysis. It promises to return a treasure trove that will keep both cosmologists and astrophysicists busy for decades to come.