Planck Spacecraft Loses Its Cool(ant) But Keeps Going

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After two and a half years of observing the Cosmic Microwave Background, the ESA Planck spacecraft’s High Frequency Instrument ran out of its on-board coolant gases over this past weekend, reaching the end of its very successful mission. But that doesn’t mean the end for Planck observations. The Low Frequency Instrument, which does not need to be super-cold (but is still at a bone-chilling -255 C), will continue taking data.

“The Low Frequency Instrument will now continue operating for another year,” said Richard Davis, of the University of Manchester in the UK. “During that time it will provide unprecedented sensitivity at the lower frequencies.”

From its location at the Earth/Sun’s L2 Lagrangian point, Planck was designed to ‘see’ the microwaves from the CMB and detects them by measuring temperature. The expansion of the Universe means that the CMB is brightest when seen in microwave light, with wavelengths between 100 and 10,000 times longer than visible light. To measure such long wavelengths Planck’s detectors have to be cooled to very low temperatures. The colder the spacecraft, the lower the temperatures the spacecraft can detect.

The High Frequency Instrument (HFI) was cooled to as close to 2.7K (about –270°C, near absolute zero) as possible.

Planck worked perfectly for 30 months, about twice the span originally required, and completed five full-sky surveys with both instruments.

“Planck has been a wonderful mission; spacecraft and instruments have been performing outstandingly well, creating a treasure trove of scientific data for us to work with,” said Jan Tauber, ESA’s Planck Project Scientist.

While it was the combination of both instruments that made Planck so powerful, there is still work for the LFI to do.

Now and Then. This single all-sky image simultaneously captured two snapshots that straddle virtually the entire 13.7 billion year history of the universe. One of them is ‘now’ – our galaxy and its structures seen as they are over the most recent tens of thousands of years (the thin strip extending across the image is the edge-on plane of our galaxy – the Milky Way). The other is ‘then’ – the red afterglow of the Big Bang seen as it was just 380,000 years after the Big Bang (top and bottom of image). The time between these two snapshots therefore covers about 99.997% of the 13.7 billion year age of the universe. The image was obtained by the Planck spacecraft. Credit: ESA

The scientists involved in Planck have been busy understanding and analyzing the data since Planck launched in May 2009. Initial results from Planck were announced last year, and with Planck data, scientists have created a map of the CMB identifying which bits of the map are showing light from the early Universe, and which parts are due to much closer objects, such as gas and dust in our galaxy, or light from other galaxies. The scientists have also produced a catalog of galaxy clusters in the distant Universe — many of which had not been seen before — and included some gigantic ‘superclusters,’ which are probably merging clusters.

The scientists expect to release data about star formation later next month, and reveal cosmological findings from the Big Bang and the very early Universe in 2013.

“The fact that Planck has worked so perfectly means that we have an incredible amount of data,” said George Efstathiou, a Planck Survey Scientist from the University of Cambridge. “Analyzing it takes very high-performance computers, sophisticated software, and several years of careful study to ensure that the results are correct.”

Source: ESA, UK Space Agency

Cosmology 101: The End

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Welcome back to the third, and last, installment of Cosmology 101. So far, we’ve covered the history of the universe up to the present moment. But what happens next? How will our universe end? And how can we be so sure that this is how the story unfolded?

Robert Frost once wrote, “Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice.” Likewise, some scientists have postulated that the universe could die either a dramatic, cataclysmic death – either a “Big Rip” or a “Big Crunch” – or a slower, more gradual “Big Freeze.” The ultimate fate of our cosmos has a lot to do with its shape. If the universe were open, like a saddle, and the energy density of dark energy increased without bound, the expansion rate of the cosmos would eventually become so great that even atoms would be torn apart – a Big Rip. Conversely, if the universe were closed, like a sphere, and gravity’s strength trumped the influence of dark energy, the outward expansion of the cosmos would eventually come to a halt and reverse, collapsing on itself in a Big Crunch.

Despite the poetic beauty of fire, however, current observations favor an icy end to our universe – a Big Freeze. Scientists believe that we live in a spatially flat universe whose expansion is accelerating due to the presence of dark energy; however, the total energy density of the cosmos is most likely less than or equal to the so-called “critical density,” so there will be no Big Rip. Instead, the contents of the universe will eventually drift prohibitively far away from each other and heat and energy exchange will cease. The cosmos will have reached a state of maximum entropy, and no life will be able to survive. Depressing and a bit anti-climactic? Perhaps. But it probably won’t be perceptible until the universe is at least twice its current age.

At this point you might be screaming, “How do we know all this? Isn’t it all just rampant speculation?” Well, first of all, we know without a doubt that the universe is expanding. Astronomical observations consistently demonstrate that light from distant stars is always redshifted relative to us; that is, its wavelength has been stretched due to the expansion of the cosmos. This leads to two possibilities when you wind back the clock: either the expanding universe has always existed and is infinite in age, or it began expanding from a smaller version of itself at a specific time in the past and thus has a fixed age. For a long time, proponents of the Steady State Theory endorsed the former explanation. It wasn’t until Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background in 1965 that the big bang theory became the most accepted explanation for the origin of the universe.

Why? Something as large as our cosmos takes quite a while to cool completely. If the universe did, in fact, began with the kind of blistering energies that the big bang theory predicts, astronomers should still see some leftover heat today. And they do: a uniform 3K glow evenly dispersed at every point in the sky. Not only that – but WMAP and other satellites have observed tiny inhomogeneities in the CMB that precisely match the initial spectrum of quantum fluctuations predicted by the big bang theory.

What else? Take a look at the relative abundances of light elements in the universe. Remember that during the first few minutes of the cosmos’ young life, the ambient temperature was high enough for nuclear fusion to occur. The laws of thermodynamics and the relative density of baryons (i.e. protons and neutrons) together determine exactly how much deuterium (heavy hydrogen), helium and lithium could be formed at this time. As it turns out, there is far more helium (25%!) in our current universe than could be created by nucleosynthesis in the center of stars. Meanwhile, a hot early universe – like the one postulated by the big bang theory – gives rise to the exact proportions of light elements that scientists observe in the universe today.

But wait, there’s more. The distribution of large-scale structure in the universe can be mapped extremely well based solely on observed anisotropies in the CMB. Moreover, today’s large-scale structure looks very different from that at high redshift, implying a dynamic and evolving universe. Additionally, the age of the oldest stars appears to be consistent with the age of the cosmos given by the big bang theory. Like any theory, it has its weaknesses – for instance, the horizon problem or the flatness problem or the problems of dark energy and dark matter; but overall, astronomical observations match the predictions of the big bang theory far more closely than any rival idea. Until that changes, it seems as though the big bang theory is here to stay.

Cosmology 101: The Present

A map of the CMB as captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Credit: WMAP team

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Welcome back! Last time, we discussed the first few controversial and eventful moments following the birth of our cosmos. Looking around us today, we know that in the span of just a few billion years, the universe was transformed from that blistering amalgam of tiny elementary particles into a vast and organized expanse just teeming with large-scale structure. How does something like that happen?

Let’s recap. When we left off, the universe was a chaotic soup of simple matter and radiation. A photon couldn’t travel very far without bumping into and being absorbed by a charged particle, exciting it and later being emitted, just to go through the cycle again. After about three minutes, the ambient temperature had cooled to such an extent that these charged particles (protons and electrons) could begin to come together and form stable nuclei.

But, despite the falling temperature, it was still hot enough for these nuclei to start to combine into heavier elements. For the next few minutes, the universe cooked up various isotopes of hydrogen, helium and lithium nuclei in a process commonly known as big bang nucleosynthesis. As time went on and the universe expanded even further, these nuclei slowly captured surrounding electrons until neutral atoms dominated the landscape. Finally, after about 300,000 years, photons could travel freely across the universe without charged particles getting in their way. The cosmic microwave background radiation that astronomers observe today is actually the relic light from that very moment, stretched over time due to the expansion of the universe.

If you look at a picture of the CMB (above), you will see a pattern of differently colored patches that represent anisotropies in the background temperature of the cosmos. These temperature differences originally stemmed from tiny quantum fluctuations that were dramatically blown up in the very early universe. Over the next few hundred million years, the slightly overdense regions in the spacetime fabric attracted more and more matter (both baryonic – the kind that you and I are made of – and dark) under the influence of gravity. Some small regions eventually became so hot and dense that they were able to begin nuclear fusion in their cores; thus, in a delicate dance between external gravity and internal pressure, the first stars were born. Gravity then continued its pull, dragging clumps of stars into galaxies and later, clumps of galaxies into galaxy clusters. Some massive stars collapsed into black holes. Others grew so heavy and bloated that they exploded, spewing chunks of metal-rich debris in every direction. About 4.7 billion years ago, some of this material found its way into orbit around one unassuming main sequence star, creating planets of all sizes, shapes, and compositions – our Solar System!

Billions of years of geology and evolution later, here we are. And there the rest of the universe is. It’s a pretty striking story. But what’s next? And how do we know that all of this theory is even close to correct? Make sure to come back next time to find out!

Cosmological Constant

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The cosmological constant, symbol Λ (Greek capital lambda), was ‘invented’ by Einstein, not long after he published his theory of general relativity (GR). It appears on the left-hand side of the Einstein field equations.

Einstein added this term because he – along with all other astronomers and physicists of the time – thought the universe was static (the cosmological constant can make a universe filled with mass-energy static, neither expanding nor contracting). However, he very quickly realized that this wouldn’t work, because such a universe would be unstable … and quickly turn into one either expanding or contracting! Not long afterwards, Hubble (actually Vesto Slipher) discovered that the universe is, in fact, expanding, so the need for a cosmological constant went away.

Until 1998.

In that year, two teams of astronomers independently announced that distant Type Ia supernovae did not have the apparent luminosity they should, in a universe composed almost entirely of mass-energy in the form of baryons (ordinary matter) and cold dark matter.

Dark Energy had been discovered: dark energy is a form of mass-energy that has a constant density throughout the universe, and perhaps throughout time as well; counter-intuitively, it causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate (i.e. it acts kinda like anti-gravity). The most natural form of dark energy is the cosmological constant.

A great deal of research has gone into trying to discover if dark energy is, in fact, just the cosmological constant, or if it is quintessence, or something else. So far, results from observations of the CMB (by WMAP, mainly), of BAO (baryon acoustic oscillations, by extensive surveys of galaxies), and of high-redshift supernovae (by many teams) are consistent with dark energy being the cosmological constant.

So if the cosmological constant is (a) mass-energy (density), it can be expressed as kilograms (per cubic meter), can’t it? Yes, and the best estimate today is 7.3 x 10-27 kg m 3.

Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial (UCLA) and Sean Carroll’s Cosmology Primer (California Institute of Technology) between them cover not only the cosmological constant, but also cosmology! NASA’s What Is A Cosmological Constant? is a great one-page intro.

Universe Today has many, many stories featuring the cosmological constant! Here are a few to whet your appetite: Universe to WMAP: LCDM Rules, OK?, Einstein’s Cosmological Constant Predicts Dark Energy, and No “Big Rip” in our Future: Chandra Provides Insights Into Dark Energy.

There are many Astronomy Cast episodes which include discussion of the cosmological constant … these are among the best: The Big Bang and Cosmic Microwave Background, The Important Numbers in the Universe, and the March 18th, 2009 Questions Show.

Sources:
http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_accel.html
http://super.colorado.edu/~michaele/Lambda/lambda.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmological_constant

Seven-Year WMAP Results: No, They’re NOT Anomalies

Since the day the first Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) data were released, in 2003, all manner of cosmic microwave background (CMB) anomalies have been reported; there’s been the cold spot that might be a window into a parallel universe, the “Axis of Evil”, pawprints of local interstellar neutral hydrogen, and much, much more.

But do the WMAP data really, truly, absolutely contain evidence of anomalies, things that just do not fit within the six-parameters-and-a-model the WMAP team recently reported?

In a word, no.

Seven Year Microwave Sky (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

Every second year since 2003 the WMAP science team has published a set of papers on their analyses of the cumulative data, and their findings (with the mission due to end later this year, their next set will, sadly, be their last). With time and experience – not to mention inputs from the thousands of other researchers who have picked over the data – the team has not only amassed a lot more data, but has also come to understand how WMAP operates far better. As a consequence, not only are the published results – such as limits on the nature of dark energy, and the number of different kinds of neutrinos – more stringent and robust, but the team has also become very au fait with the various anomalies reported.

For the first time, the team has examined these anomalies, in detail, and has concluded that the answer to the question, in their words, “are there potential deviations from ?CDM within the context of the allowed parameter ranges of the existing WMAP observations?” is “no”.

The reported anomalies the team examined are many – two prominent cold spots, strength of the quadrupole, lack of large angular scale CMB power, alignment of the quadrupole and octupole components, hemispherical or dipole power asymmetry, to name but a handful – but the reasons for the apparent anomalies are few.

“Human eyes and brains are excellent at detecting visual patterns, but poor at assessing probabilities. Features seen in the WMAP maps, such as the large Cold Spot I near the Galactic center region, can stand out as unusual. However, the likelihood of such features can not be discerned by visual inspection of our particular realization of the universe,” they write, and “Monte Carlo simulations are an invaluable way to determine the expected deviations within the ?CDM model. Claims of anomalies without Monte Carlo simulations are necessarily weak claims”.

Stephen Hawking’s initials in the CMB (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

An amusing example: Stephen Hawking’s initials (“SH”) can be clearly seen in the WMAP sky map. “The “S” and “H” are in roughly the same font size and style, and both letters are aligned neatly along a line of fixed Galactic latitude,” the team says; “A calculation would show that the probability of this particular occurrence is vanishingly small. Yet, there is no case to made for a non-standard cosmology despite this extraordinarily low probability event,” they dryly note.

Many of the reports of WMAP CMB anomalies would likely make for good teaching material, as they illustrate well the many traps that you can so easily fall into when doing after-the-fact (a posteriori) statistical analyses. Or, as the team puts it in regard to the Stephen Hawking initials: “It is clear that the combined selection of looking for initials, these particular initials, and their alignment and location are all a posteriori choices. For a rich data set, as is the case with WMAP, there are a lot of data and a lot of ways of analyzing the data.”

And what happens when you have a lot of data? Low probability events are guaranteed to occur! “For example, it is not unexpected to find a 2? feature when analyzing a rich data set in a number of different ways. However, to assess whether a particular 2? feature is interesting, one is often tempted to narrow in on it to isolate its behavior. That process involves a posteriori choices that amplify the apparent significance of the feature.”

So, does the team conclude that all this anomaly hunting is a waste of effort? Absolutely not! I’ll quote from the team’s own conclusion: “The search for oddities in the data is essential for testing the model. The success of the model makes these searches even more important. A detection of any highly significant a posteriori feature could become a serious challenge for the model. The less significant features discussed in this paper provided the motivation for considering alternative models and developing new analysis of WMAP (and soon Planck) data. The oddities have triggered proposed new observations that can further test the models. It is often difficult to assess the statistical claims. It may well be that an oddity could be found that motivates a new theory, which then could be tested as a hypothesis against ?CDM. The data support these comparisons. Of course, other cosmological measurements must also play a role in testing new hypotheses. No CMB anomaly reported to date has caused the scientific community to adopt a new standard model of cosmology, but claimed anomalies have been used to provoke thought and to search for improved theories.”

Primary source: Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Are There Cosmic Microwave Background Anomalies? (arXiv:1001.4758). The five other Seven-Year WMAP papers are: Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Cosmological Interpretation (arXiv:1001.4538), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Planets and Celestial Calibration Sources (arXiv:1001.4731), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Sky Maps, Systematic Errors, and Basic Results (arXiv:1001.4744), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Power Spectra and WMAP-Derived Parameters (arXiv:1001.4635), and Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Galactic Foreground Emission (arXiv:1001.4555). Also check out the official WMAP website.

Universe to WMAP: ΛCDM Rules, OK?

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The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) science team has finished analyzing seven full years’ of data from the little probe that could, and once again it seems we can sum up the universe in six parameters and a model.

Using the seven-year WMAP data, together with recent results on the large-scale distribution of galaxies, and an updated estimate of the Hubble constant, the present-day age of the universe is 13.75 (plus-or-minus 0.11) billion years, dark energy comprises 72.8% (+/- 1.5%) of the universe’s mass-energy, baryons 4.56% (+/- 0.16%), non-baryonic matter (CDM) 22.7% (+/- 1.4%), and the redshift of reionization is 10.4 (+/- 1.2).

In addition, the team report several new cosmological constraints – primordial abundance of helium (this rules out various alternative, ‘cold big bang’ models), and an estimate of a parameter which describes a feature of density fluctuations in the very early universe sufficiently precisely to rule out a whole class of inflation models (the Harrison-Zel’dovich-Peebles spectrum), to take just two – as well as tighter limits on many others (number of neutrino species, mass of the neutrino, parity violations, axion dark matter, …).

The best eye-candy from the team’s six papers are the stacked temperature and polarization maps for hot and cold spots; if these spots are due to sound waves in matter frozen in when radiation (photons) and baryons parted company – the cosmic microwave background (CMB) encodes all the details of this separation – then there should be nicely circular rings, of rather exact sizes, around the spots. Further, the polarization directions should switch from radial to tangential, from the center out (for cold spots; vice versa for hot spots).

And that’s just what the team found!

Concerning Dark Energy. Since the Five-Year WMAP results were published, several independent studies with direct relevance to cosmology have been published. The WMAP team took those from observations of the baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO) in the distribution of galaxies; of Cepheids, supernovae, and a water maser in local galaxies; of time-delay in a lensed quasar system; and of high redshift supernovae, and combined them to reduce the nooks and crannies in parameter space in which non-cosmological constant varieties of dark energy could be hiding. At least some alternative kinds of dark energy may still be possible, but for now Λ, the cosmological constant, rules.

Concerning Inflation. Very, very, very early in the life of the universe – so the theory of cosmic inflation goes – there was a period of dramatic expansion, and the tiny quantum fluctuations before inflation became the giant cosmic structures we see today. “Inflation predicts that the statistical distribution of primordial fluctuations is nearly a Gaussian distribution with random phases. Measuring deviations from a Gaussian distribution,” the team reports, “is a powerful test of inflation, as how precisely the distribution is (non-) Gaussian depends on the detailed physics of inflation.” While the limits on non-Gaussianity (as it is called), from analysis of the WMAP data, only weakly constrain various models of inflation, they do leave almost nowhere for cosmological models without inflation to hide.

Concerning ‘cosmic shadows’ (the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich (SZ) effect). While many researchers have looked for cosmic shadows in WMAP data before – perhaps the best known to the general public is the 2006 Lieu, Mittaz, and Zhang paper (the SZ effect: hot electrons in the plasma which pervades rich clusters of galaxies interact with CMB photons, via inverse Compton scattering) – the WMAP team’s recent analysis is their first to investigate this effect. They detect the SZ effect directly in the nearest rich cluster (Coma; Virgo is behind the Milky Way foreground), and also statistically by correlation with the location of some 700 relatively nearby rich clusters. While the WMAP team’s finding is consistent with data from x-ray observations, it is inconsistent with theoretical models. Back to the drawing board for astrophysicists studying galaxy clusters.

Seven Year Microwave Sky (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

I’ll wrap up by quoting Komatsu et al. “The standard ΛCDM cosmological model continues to be an exquisite fit to the existing data.”

Primary source: Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Cosmological Interpretation (arXiv:1001.4738). The five other Seven-Year WMAP papers are: Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Are There Cosmic Microwave Background Anomalies? (arXiv:1001.4758), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Planets and Celestial Calibration Sources (arXiv:1001.4731), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Sky Maps, Systematic Errors, and Basic Results (arXiv:1001.4744), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Power Spectra and WMAP-Derived Parameters (arXiv:1001.4635), and Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Galactic Foreground Emission (arXiv:1001.4555). Also check out the official WMAP website.

New CMB Measurements Support Standard Model

New measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the leftover light from the Big Bang – lend further support the Standard Cosmological Model and the existence of dark matter and dark energy, limiting the possibility of alternative models of the Universe. Researchers from Stanford University and Cardiff University produced a detailed map of the composition and structure of matter as it would have looked shortly after the Big Bang, which shows that the Universe would not look as it does today if it were made up solely of ‘normal matter’.

By measuring the way the light of the CMB is polarized, a team led by Sarah Church of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and by Walter Gear, head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom were able construct a map of the way the Universe would have looked shortly after matter came into existence after the Big Bang. Their findings lend evidence to the predictions of the Standard Model in which the Universe is composed of 95% dark matter and energy, and only 5% of ordinary matter.

Polarization is a feature of light rays in which the oscillation of the light wave lies in right angles to the direction in which the light is traveling. Though most light is unpolarized, light that has interacted with matter can become polarized. The leftover light from the Big Bang – the CMB – has now cooled to a few degrees above 0 Kelvin, but it still retains the same polarization it had in the early Universe, once it had cooled enough to become transparent to light. By measuring this polarization, the researchers were able to extrapolate the location, structure, and velocity of matter in the early Universe with unprecedented precision. The gravitational collapse of large clumps of matter in the early universe creates certain resonances in the polarization that allowed the researchers to create a map of the matter composition.

Dr. Gear said, “The pattern of oscillations in the power spectra allow us to discriminate, as “real” and “dark” matter affect the position and amplitudes of the peaks in different ways. The results are also consistent with many other pieces of evidence for dark matter, such as the rotation rate of galaxies, and the distribution of galaxies in clusters.”

The measurements made by the QUaD experiment further constrain those made by previous experiments to measure properties of the CMB, such as WMAP and ACBAR. In comparison to these previous experiments, the The QUaD experiment, located at the South Pole, allowed researchers to measure the polarization of the CMB with very high precision. Image Credit: Sarah Churchmeasurements come closer to fitting what is predicted by the Standard Cosmologicl Model by more than an order of magnitude, said Dr. Gear. This is a very important step on the path to verifying whether our model of the Universe is correct.

The researchers used the QUaD experiment at the South Pole to make their observations. The QUaD telescope is a bolometer, essentially a thermometer that measures how certain types of radiation increase the temperature of the metals in the detector. The detector itself has to be near 1 degree Kelvin to eliminate noise radiation from the surrounding environment, which is why it is located at the frigid South Pole, and placed inside of a cryostat.

Paper co-author Walter Gear said in an email interview:

“The polarization is imprinted at the time the Universe becomes transparent to light, about 400,000 years after the big bang, rather than right after the big bang before matter existed. There are major efforts now to try to find what is called the “B-mode” signal”  which is a more complicated polarization pattern that IS imprinted right after the big-bang. QuaD places the best current upper limit on this but is still more than an order of magnitude away in sensitivity from even optimistic predictions of what that signal might be. That is the next generation of experiments’s goal.”

The results, published in a paper titled Improved Measurements of the Temperature and Polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background from QUaD in the November 1st Astrophysical Journal, fit the predictions of the Standard Model remarkably well, providing further evidence for the existence of dark matter and energy, and constraining alternative models of the Universe.

Source: SLAC, email interview with Dr. Walter Gear

Planck First Light

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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.

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.

Source: ESA

What! No Parallel Universe? Cosmic Cold Spot Just Data Artifact

Rats! Another perplexing space mystery solved by science. New analysis of the famous “cold spot” in the cosmic microwave background reveals, and confirms, actually, that the spot is just an artifact of the statistical methods used to find it. That means there is no supervoid lurking in the CMB, and no parallel universe lying just beyond the edge of our own. What fun is that?

Back in 2004, astronomers studying data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) found a region of the cosmic microwave background in the southern hemisphere in the direction of the constellation of Eridanus that was significantly colder than the rest by about 70 microkelvin. The probability of finding something like that was extremely low. If the Universe really is homogeneous and isotropic, then all points in space ought to experience the same physical development, and appear the same. This just wasn’t supposed to be there.

Some astronomers suggested the spot could be a supervoid, a remnant of an early phase transition in the universe. Others theorized it was a window into a parallel universe.

Well, it turns out, it wasn’t there.

Ray Zhang and Dragan Huterer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor say that the cold spot is simply an artifact of the statistical method–called Spherical Mexican Hat Wavelets–used to analyze the WMAP data. Use a different method of analysis and the cold spot disappears (or at least is no colder than expected).

“We trace this apparent discrepancy to the fact that WMAP cold spot’s temperature profile just happens to favor the particular profile given by the wavelet,” the duo says in their paper. “We find no compelling evidence for the anomalously cold spot in WMAP at scales between 2 and 8 degrees.”

This confirms another paper from 2008 also by Huterer along with colleague Kendrick Smith from the University of Cambridge who showed that the huge void could be considered as a statistical fluke because it had stars both in front of and behind it.

And in fact, one of the earlier papers suggesting the cold spot by Lawrence Rudnick from the University of Minnesota does indeed say that statistical uncertainties have not been accounted for.

Oh well. Now, on to the next cosmological mysteries like dark matter and dark energy!

Zhang and Huterer’s paper.

Huterer and Smith’s paper (2008)

Rudnick’s paper 2007

Original paper “finding” the cold spot

Sources: Technology Review Blog, Science