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Planck’s new view of the cosmic theatre

Copyright ESA

The first scientific results from ESA’s Planck mission were released at a press briefing today in Paris. The findings focus on the coldest objects in the Universe, from within our Galaxy to the distant reaches of space.

If William Shakespeare were an astronomer living today, he might write that “All the Universe is a stage, and all the galaxies merely players.” Planck is bringing us new views of both the stage and players, revealing the drama of the evolution of our Universe.

Following the publication by ESA of the first full-sky Planck image in July last year, today sees the release of the first scientific results from the mission.

These results are being presented by the Planck Collaboration at a major scientific conference in Paris this week, based on 25 papers submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The basis of many of these results is the Planck mission’s ‘Early Release Compact Source Catalogue’, the equivalent of a cast list.

Drawn from Planck’s continuing survey of the entire sky at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths, the catalogue contains thousands of very cold, individual sources which the scientific community is now free to explore.

“This is a great [...]

Planck unveils the Universe – now and then

Copyright ESA

ESA’s Planck mission has delivered its first all-sky image. It not only provides new insight into the way stars and galaxies form but also tells us how the Universe itself came to life after the Big Bang.

“This is the moment that Planck was conceived for,” says ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, David Southwood. “We’re not giving the answer. We are opening the door to an Eldorado where scientists can seek the nuggets that will lead to deeper understanding of how our Universe came to be and how it works now. The image itself and its remarkable quality is a tribute to the engineers who built and have operated Planck. Now the scientific harvest must begin.”

From the closest portions of the Milky Way to the furthest reaches of space and time, the new all-sky Planck image is an extraordinary treasure chest of new data for astronomers.

The main disc of our Galaxy runs across the centre of the image. Immediately striking are the streamers of cold dust reaching above and below the Milky Way. This galactic web is where new stars are being formed, and Planck has found many locations where individual stars [...]

Planck highlights the complexity of star formation

Copyright ESA

New images from ESA’s Planck space observatory reveal the forces driving star formation and give astronomers a way to understand the complex physics that shape the dust and gas in our Galaxy.

Star formation takes place hidden behind veils of dust but that doesn’t mean we can’t see through them. Where optical telescopes see only black space, Planck’s microwave eyes reveal myriad glowing structures of dust and gas. Now, Planck has used this ability to probe two relatively nearby star-forming regions in our Galaxy.

The Orion region is a cradle of star formation, some 1500 light-years away. It is famous for the Orion Nebula, which can be seen by the naked eye as a faint smudge of pink.

Planck image of a region in the constellation Perseus The first image covers much of the constellation of Orion. The nebula is the bright spot to the lower centre. The bright spot to the right of centre is around the Horsehead Nebula, so called because at high magnifications a pillar of dust resembles a horse’s head.

The giant red arc of Barnard’s Loop is thought to be the blast wave from a star that blew up inside the [...]

Coolest spacecraft ever in orbit around L2

Coolest spacecraft ever in orbit around L2

Copyright ESA

Last night, the detectors of Planck’s High Frequency Instrument reached their amazingly low operational temperature of -273.05°C, making them the coldest known objects in space. The spacecraft has also just entered its final orbit around the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system, L2.

Planck is equipped with a passive cooling system that brings its temperature down to about -230°C by radiating heat into space. Three active coolers take over from there, and bring the temperature down further to an amazing low of -273.05°C, only 0.1°C above absolute zero – the coldest temperature theoretically possible in our Universe.

Such low temperatures are necessary for Planck’s detectors to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the first light released by the universe only 380 000 yrs after the Big Bang, by measuring its temperature across the sky.

The detectors will look for variations in the temperature of the CMB that are about a million times smaller than one degree – this is comparable to measuring from Earth the heat produced by a rabbit sitting on the Moon. This is why the detectors must be cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero (–273.15°C, or zero Kelvin, 0K).

Details on the [...]