Planck First Light

Back in early July, I posted a note about the European Space Agency’s [ESA] Planck Observatory, which had been launched in mid-May, and had just reached its normal operating temperature of 0.1° K (-273.05° Celsius).  The observatory operates in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and is intended to make the most precise measurements yet of the Cosmic Microwave Background, a faint remaining echo of the aftermath of the Big Bang.

BBC News now has a report that Planck, having undergone a period of testing in mid-August, has now been able to return  its first images back to Earth:

The new images show off Planck’s capabilities now that it has been set up, although major science results are not expected for a couple of years.

“The images show first of all that we are working and that we are able to map the sky,” said Planck project scientist Dr Jan Tauber.

The observatory’s position is about 1.5 million km from Earth.  It scans strips of the sky as it rotates (once per minute) and travels around the Sun.  It is expected to take about six months to produce the first complete sky image.  The observatory is expected to have a useful operating life of about 15 months (among other things, it has only a finite supply of liquid helium to cool the instruments); the ESA hopes to assemble two complete scans of the sky within that time.  So far, the quality of the data and images appears to be excellent.

Its detectors, or bolometers, are the most sensitive ever flown in space, and operate at a staggering minus 273.05C – just a tenth of a degree above what scientists term “absolute zero”.

“In terms of the instrumental performance, we are getting what we expected from ground testing,” explained Dr Tauber.

Like similar predecessor experiments, Planck has the potential to reveal an enormous amount of information about the very early evolution of the universe.  So far, the mission is going smoothly and according to plan.

The ESA site also has an article on Planck, with some samples of the image data returned.

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