Planck Unveils the Wonders of the Universe

The mission began on 13th August 2009 with a goal to image the echo’s of the birth of the Universe, the cosmic background radiation. But scientists working on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck mission got more than they bargained for making ground breaking discoveries and shedding light on old mysteries. By studying light from the far reaches of the Universe, Planck has to look through the rest of the Universe first and it was during this, that the incredible discoveries were made.

The crazy thing about looking at the far reaches of the Universe is that we actually look back in time as it takes billions of years for the light to reach us here on Earth. This enables astronomers to look back in time and study the evolution of the Universe almost back to the Big Bang itself. Amongst the discoveries was evidence for an otherwise invisible population of galaxies that seem to be shrouded in dust billions of years in the past. Star formation rates in these galaxies seem to be happening at an incredible pace, some 10-1000 times higher than we see in our own Milky Way galaxy today. Joanna Dunkley, of Oxford University, said “Planck’s measurements of these distant galaxies are shedding new light on when and where ancient stars formed in the early universe”.

One of the challenges of getting a clear view of these galaxies though has been removing the so called ‘anomalous microwave emission’ (AME) foreground haze. This annoying and poorly understood interference, which is thought to originate in our own Galaxy, has only just been pierced through with Planck’s instruments. But in doing so, clues to its nature have been unveiled. It seems that the AME is coming from dust grains in our Galaxy spinning several tens of billions of times per second, perhaps from collisions with incoming faster-moving atoms or from ultra-violet radiation. Planck was able to ‘remove’ the foreground microwave haze, leaving the distant galaxies in perfect view and the cosmic background radiation untouched.

Its also the ideal instrument to detect very cold matter in the form of dust in our Galaxy and beyond, thanks to its broad wavelength coverage. During its study, it detected over 900 clumps of cold dark dust clouds which are thought to represent the first stages of star birth. By studying a number of nearby galaxies within a few billion light years, the study shows that some of them contain much more cold dust than previously thought. Dr David Clements from Imperial College London says “Planck will help us to build a ladder connecting our Milky Way to the faint, distant galaxies and uncovering the evolution of dusty, star forming galaxies throughout cosmic history.”

These results make Planck a roaring success but it doesn’t stop there. Other results just published include data on galaxy clusters revealing them silhouetted against the cosmic microwave background. These clusters contain thousands of individual galaxies gravitational bound together into gigantic strings and loops.

The Planck mission, which was in development for 15 years is already providing some ground breaking science in its first few years of operation and its exciting to wonder what we will see from it in the years that lie ahead.

Mark Thompson is a writer and the astronomy presenter on the BBC One Show. See his website, The People’s Astronomer, and you can follow him on Twitter, @PeoplesAstro

16 Replies to “Planck Unveils the Wonders of the Universe”

  1. Today twenty-five new papers on arVix on this story were released. Extraordinary, and this is only the preliminary data! (It will take me a few days to read through!)

    These all appear at under at the date of Wed, 12 Jan 2011. (After tomorrow, they will have to be searched for using the key words of “Planck+Early.”)

    Clear a stunning collection of information that will be analysed for years to come!

    1. I know. I was more responding to;

      The Planck mission, which was in development for 15 years is already providing some ground breaking science in its first few years of operation and its exciting to wonder what we will see from it in the years that lie ahead.

      Also interesting is that galactic objects are probably causing the interference, but I wonder what is the source. IMO, understanding it, and hence making a clearly picture, will give us a best perspective of this story here.

      1. It is interesting that in order to filter out information from the CMB information from galaxies, both ours and distant ones, has to be characterized. So far I have only partially looked at one of these papers. It is also interesting that lots of SZ data seems to appear as well. So in order to get the grand cosmological data you have to understand well the galactic astrophysical well enough to lift if off the actual CMB. It is killing two birds with one stone so to speak.


  2. Planck and Herschel have both been such resounding successes and to think they both went up in one launch – scary. I must direct Mark to the apostrophe preservation website though, the plural of echo is echoes.

  3. Does anyone else hear the distant thunder of a cosmological paradigm shift approaching? What would William Herschel or Caroline say? They after all, created the first major paradigm shift using that monster heavy 40 foot speculum mirrored Leviathon…. some candles, a pen and ink and paper…

    Did you know that part of the polishing process for the speculum mirror was rubbing it with horse manure for hours and hours to polish it….

    So today, thanks to Planck… we might all share in the excitement they felt when they first looked up and saw galaxies everywhere?

  4. back around the middle of last year the planck crew released a version of the image with all that foreground galactic dust removed, and showing all those “giant strings and loops” of “clusters” much more clearly.
    i made a “redscale” version of it (similar to what you see in those boxes) but since we can’t attach any images i can’t show it to you.

    anyway all that (whitish-blue coloured) foreground fluff (carbon dust) can be seen more clearly in the images taken by irass in the 12 – 240 micron range and it also includes a few other bits as well, for instance that little whitish blob just above the top right of the box marked “bootes 2” is the large magellanic cloud.

  5. actually it should be pointed out that not so long ago (up to around mid 2007?), those “clusters” exhibited (for example) in the boxes, were regarded as the “energetic/density fluctuations of the cmb” (remember the boomerang and wmap pics?) and to therefore be the precursors to clusters that were to form much later.

    its funny how things change.

    and if you’re looking for that baby picture of the cmb?, it appears (finally now to be accepted?) to be that blackish grit in between the clusters in the boxes.

    so what did penzias and wilson discover?, why those bright clusters of course and not that very dim (and supposed to be) cmb.

    1. “that baby picture of the cmb?, it appears (finally now to be accepted?) to be that blackish grit in between the clusters in the boxes.”

      Could you give a link or reference to any overlay/subtraction-images that show this?

      1. links/references to any overlay/subtraction-images?

        that “cleaned-up” Planck image i referred to in my first post ie: the one with all the foreground (milky way etc) fluff removed is basically identical to the ones i made from the wmap releases (1st, 3rd and 5th years and which i posted years ago at UT and also at BAUT).

        in both instances (and for the first time beginning with wmap and due to its resolution) the density fluctuations of the cmb were finally resolved to be emitted from point sources in (exactly) the same manner as you see in the boxes of this article).

        perhaps the (overlaid) point sources described in this article as “clusters” (of galaxies) really are a population residing somewhere between the “supposed cmb” and us, but if we were to look at the images i’ve mentioned, we would see identical features in the supposed cmb (ie: the emission said to come from 300,000 years after the BB).

        those images look exactly the same as what we see in the boxes in this article, ie: clusters of bright point sources on a dark background.

        perhaps i could send you a copy of both the wmap and planck images (so you can compare?) by pm or somehow?

        if we follow the logic of this article then we apparently are not seeing any of the
        supposed “real cmb” in the accompanying image (and i apologise for apparently being in error) but if we were to compare the wmap and “cleaned-up planck” images we would see that they are virtually identical ie: the clusters have the exact same “loop” and “wall structures” (except that the planck image is a higher res) and that the supposed “density fluctuations” displayed in both are resolved as being clusters of point sources (interspered with large voids).

        the upshot being that (if we look at the real cmb) we are not seeing a baby picture of the universe at all, but instead just clusters of galaxies (and large voids) at the greatest distance ie: at a distance supposedly being at T=300,000 years.

        to my recollection it was actually this conundrum of there being large dark areas in the wmap image which caused mainstream themselves (back in 2007) to go off on a tangent and start talking about the density fluctuations as being clusters and voids.

        they investigated one of the dark areas in the image (eridanus void) and found that it had a dearth of galaxies, therefore supposedly proving that the cmb (as seen by wmap) was in fact an image of “clusters and voids”.

      2. i’m suddenly getting a lot of interference with my internet connection so if i drop out of the scene maybe you can ask around (ie: the moderators) and see if they can point you to any of my old posts where i uploaded some wmap images.

      3. Thank you for your extensive reply.
        The 6 boxes in the above image are cosmic infrared background, not microwave.
        The Planck data released to the public a few days ago is an early release Compact Source catalogue. They show only point sources, not CMB. See, about 23 min.
        The first cosmological results are expected early 2013.
        Let’s wait untill then before redirecting cosmology concensus.

      4. k
        i accept that the image accompanying this article is not cmb

        but as i mentioned, the “cleaned-up” planck image that was released last year is identical to the wmap images, which were supposedly cmb.

        also, maybe you could do a search yourself for that mainstream investigation of eridanus void circa 2007?

  6. Don’t know what’s worst, waiting for Kepler’s Earth analog results (of habitable zone Earth class planets) or Planck’s first results.

  7. Particularly interesting to me was the sentence – “By studying a number of nearby galaxies within a few billion light years….”. Next time I’m told something is “nearby”, I’ll have to ask them to be a bit more specific. 😉

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