Press Release

ESA’s ‘Time Machine’ Takes First Glimpse into the Past

By SpaceRef Editor
September 18, 2009
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ESA’s ‘Time Machine’ Takes First Glimpse into the Past

The Planck space observatory, ESA’s mission to study the early Universe, has successfully completed its initial test survey of the sky, confirming that both of the scientific instruments and the sophisticated cooling system, all of which the UK played a key role in building, are working well. Following the successful survey, Planck has now embarked on its 15 month mission to map the structure of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB) — the relic radiation from the Big Bang.

The ‘first light’ survey, which started on the 13th August and was a two-week period during which Planck surveyed the sky continuously, produced maps of a strip of the sky, one for each of Planck’s nine frequencies. The plane of our own Milky Way galaxy can be seen running across the middle of the image, and is visible in the Planck data as the bright red regions. Away from the plane, the tiny fluctuations in the CMB can shine through, and these are the main target of the Planck mission.

The properties of the tiny fluctuations in the CMB provide information about the earliest moments of the Universe’s existence and how it evolved to become the Universe we see today. Planck is looking with finer resolution and greater sensitivity than previous satellites, and will allow the details of the Universe’s age and composition to be calculated more precisely than ever before.

By observing at all 9 frequencies, Planck can separate the CMB from the light emitted by the Galaxy at the same frequencies. As a result, Planck will make unprecedented observations of our own Galaxy, detecting and characterizing both gas and dust. Having maps at all nine frequencies allows the individual sources of microwave light to be distinguished better than ever before.

Professor George Efstathiou of the University of Cambridge and UK Principal Investigator for Planck said, `We are thrilled that Planck is working so well. Scientists in the UK were involved in building the two focal plane instruments on Planck and also critical parts of the sophisticated cooling system. We have now begun scientific analysis of the beautiful data from Planck and are looking forward to finding out new information on the beginnings of space and time as we know it.’

Professor Richard Davis of Manchester University and principal investigator of Planck’s UK-built LFI instrument, added, “In the 16 years since Planck’s development started, this is the most exciting time. The wonderful thing is that Planck from its vantage point one million miles from Earth is now producing images of the creation of the Universe, the so-called Big Bang, with a clarity never seen by mankind.”

The Planck satellite was launched along with the Herschel satellite on 14th May 2009 from Kourou, French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 rocket. During its 6 week journey to its observation point around “L2”, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from Earth, the scientific instruments were cooled to extremely low temperatures, making Planck the coldest object in space at just 0.1 degree above absolute zero (-273.15 degrees C). It took around 6 weeks for Planck to cool down to these low temperatures, after which a further 6 weeks were spent calibrating the instruments.

Routine operations started as soon as the First Light Survey was completed, and surveying will now continue for at least 15 months without a break. In approximately 6 months time, the first all-sky map will be assembled.

Within its allotted operational life of 15 months, Planck will be able to gather data for two full independent all-sky maps. To fully exploit the high sensitivity of Planck, the data will require a great deal of delicate adjustments and careful analysis. It promises to contain a treasure trove of data that will keep both cosmologists and astrophysicists busy for decades to come.

Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which provides the UK funding for Planck, said, “It’s great news that Planck is operating so effectively. UK researchers have invested a great deal of time and skill in this mission and we are all eager to find out what secrets Planck will reveal.”

Notes for Editors


Caption: A map of the whole sky at optical wavelengths shows a prominent horizontal band which is the light shining from our own Milky Way, seen in profile from our vantage point. The superposed false-colour strip shows the area of the sky mapped by Planck during the First Light Survey. The colour scale indicates 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. The two squares indicate the location of the detailed images shown in the next figures.

Credit: ESA, LFI & HFI Consortia (Planck), Background image: Axel Mellinger.

Additional images available from the STFC Press Office

UK Role in Planck

The UK is playing a major role in the Planck mission, with funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The UK is the second largest financial contributor to the ESA Science Programme which builds and launches space missions such as Planck using leading-edge technology from the UK space industry. In addition, STFC has invested #17.4M to build instrumentation for Planck.

A number of UK institutes and companies form part of the consortium building the two focal plane instruments, HFI (High Frequency Instrument) and LFI (Low Frequency Instrument). The Jodrell Bank Observatory at The University of Manchester has produced critical elements of the LFI receiver modules. Cardiff University, STFC RAL and SEA have been involved with hardware development for HFI, while various UK research groups including Imperial College London and University of Cambridge form the London Planck Analysis Centre and Cambridge Planck Analysis Centre. These groups are involved with data analysis and simulation for the HFI data analysis and simulation software.

More information can be found in the Planck briefing document.


Julia Short
Press Officer, STFC
Tel: +44 (0)1793 442 012
Mobile: +44 (0)7770 276 721

Science contacts:


Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

* The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
* The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
* The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also funds UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. The Council is a partner in the UK space program, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.

SpaceRef staff editor.