First light from PlanckPosted: September 19, 2009
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Earlier this year, on the 14th of May, the rocket Ariane V launched from the French Guiana with an astonishing precious cargo on board: the Hershel and the Planck satellites, two very ambitious European astronomy experiments, each with its own mission.
So you may remember that a while ago, Emma announced the release of the first images from Hershel, and last Thursday it was the turn of its sister mission’s first light to be set free to the public. Planck is out there to capture radiation which was created when the Universe was incredibly young, just a mere 340,000 years old or so – we call it the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. If that sounds like a lot, remember that the Universe is around 13,500,000,000 years old today (give or take a few hundreds of thousands of years)! In human terms, it’s the equivalent of looking at a picture of myself 6 hours after my birth – prior to my first bath, even.
The difference between me and the Universe – or one of – is the fact that we can tell an awful lot about the content, geometry and evolution of the Universe from such an early on picture. Our understanding of Cosmology has in fact been shaped by a previous experiment that has been mapping the Cosmic Microwave Background since 2004 – NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. WMAP has answered many questions and raised tons more, both being the mark of a successful science experiment. Planck is like WMAP in its primary goal – which is to map the Cosmic Microwave Background with unprecedented detail and precision – but differs in just how well it can do it, which in turn broadens the scope of scientific questions it can answer. And of the ones it can raise!
So here you have it – a true, honest to heart picture of the Universe when it was less than 400,000 years old:
What you see is actually a combination of two pictures, so let me explain. The colourful strip that twists around the picture is the data that has come from Planck. The background, is an image of the full night sky, projected into two dimensions (like you would for a world map, pretty much) and with our own Milk Way going along the centre. The background is just there to give you a frame of reference – eventually Planck will map the whole sky, as that colourful strip extends to cover more and more of the sky. The reason why they look so different is because Planck is designed to pick up radiation in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum, whereas the background picture is in visible light.
Planck will also look at each region of the sky multiple times, and each time it does it will improve the scientific value of the data. This is simply a preliminary picture, in the way of an example – but the data quality is excellent and all seems to be in place for a highly successful and smooth mission. We have to wait a while yet for the first science results to come out, but rest assured that we will cover them here on weareallinthegutter as they arrive.
These are good times, exciting times for science and cosmology – exciting times indeed!