The European Space Agency (ESA) has released successful initial results from its mission to study the early Universe.
ESA’s Planck microwave observatory is the first European mission designed to study the Cosmic Microwave Background, the relic radiation from the Big Bang.
The space association believes the positive initial results bode well for the full-sky survey now in process.
Planck started surveying the sky regularly from its vantage point at the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system, L2, on 13 August. Since then the instruments have been fine-tuned for optimum performance.
Since its launch in May, the satellite’s subsystems have been fully checked and the instrument’s detectors cooled down. The detectors are looking for variations in the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background that are said to be around one million times smaller than 1deg.
ESA describe this as comparable to measuring, from Earth, the body heat of a rabbit sitting on the Moon.
Planck’s detectors are able to do this by being cooled to extremely low temperatures, some of them being very close to absolute zero (–273.15C).
The ‘first light’ survey, which began on 13 August, was a two-week period during which Planck surveyed the sky continuously. It was carried out to verify the stability of the instruments and the ability to calibrate them over long periods to the accuracy needed.
This survey was completed on 27 August, yielding maps of a strip of the sky, one for each of Planck’s nine frequencies. Each map is a ring, about 15deg wide, stretching across the full sky. ESA reported that preliminary analysis indicates that the quality of the data is excellent.
ESA have stated that surveying will continue for at least 15 months without a break. In approximately six months, ESA believe the first all-sky map will be assembled.
Within its allotted operational life of 15 months, it is expected Planck will gather data for two complete sky maps, which ESA described as a potential ‘treasure trove’ for cosmologists and astrophysicists.
Click on the following link to view an animation of Planck: http://tinyurl.com/loo2dr