Planck First Light

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

Planck Starts Collecting Light Left Over From Big Bang

As of August 13, 2009, the Planck mission is officially in business. It is now seeing light billions of years old, left over from the Big Bang. From its location in the L2 point, the spacecraft started collecting science data as part of the “First Light Survey” which is intended to check out all the systems. If all goes as planned, these observations will be the first of 15 or more months of data gathered from two full-sky scans.

Researcher Chris North wrote on the Planck website that “the major science results will take quite a while to come out due to the immense amount of computation needed to analyse them, and are expected in around 3 years’ time. These results will be a full-sky map of the Cosmic Microwave Background, and more accurate measurements of the parameters which have governed how our Universe has evolved.”

The mission, which is led by the European Space Agency with important participation from NASA, will help answer the most fundamental of questions: How did space itself pop into existence and expand to become the universe we live in today? The answer is hidden in ancient light, called the cosmic microwave background, which has traveled more than 13 billion years to reach us. Planck will measure tiny variations in this light with the best precision to date.

After the 15 month prime mission, Planck will continue to scan the sky until its coolant runs out.

For more on Planck, check out these websites:

Cardiff University’s Planck website
ESA’s Planck Website
NASA’s Planck website
Planck Blog