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Exploring the early Universe

18 September 2009

First images from the Planck Telescope

A European space mission, which is using high-tech equipment developed at Cardiff University to unlock the secrets of the Universe, has sent back its first images from space.

The Planck space observatory, the European Space Agency’s mission to study the early Universe, has successfully completed its initial test survey of the sky. This success confirms that both of the scientific instruments and the sophisticated cooling system, which Cardiff University 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 has 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 Cosmic Microwave Background can shine through, and these are the main target of the Planck mission.

The properties of the tiny fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background 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 nine frequencies, Planck can separate the Cosmic Microwave Background 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 characterising 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 Peter Ade, School of Physics and Astronomy and the UK HFI Instrument Scientist said: "This short set of data has already shown more detail in two weeks than we got from five-years of Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) data - Planck is set to make fantastic discoveries."

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, 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."

The Astronomy Instrumentation Group in Cardiff University is playing a major role in the Planck mission, with funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Cardiff scientists, led by Professor Peter Ade, contributed to the design of the HFI instrument, and assembled the focal plane before its integration with the rest of the satellite. Ongoing efforts include the operation and calibration of the instrument.

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