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We have lift off!

15 May 2009


Two of the most powerful and ambitious astronomical satellites in the world developed by University astronomers have been successfully launched from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The Herschel Space Observatory and Planck Surveyor will explore the Universe throughout almost its entire history, from just moments after the Big Bang, through the formation and evolution of galaxies, to the birth of stars and planets in our own galaxy today.

On board Herschel is the SPIRE instrument, developed by an international consortium of 18 institutes in eight countries, and led by Professor Matt Griffin, School of Physics and Astronomy. The Planck satellite contains the HFI instrument, built by an international consortium including a team at Cardiff led by Professor Peter Ade, also in the School of Physics and Astronomy. The Cardiff Astronomy Instrumentation Group, which specialises in advanced instrumentation for infrared and submillimetre astronomy, has provided several important elements of the SPIRE and HFI instruments, and will participate in the testing and operation of both instruments after launch.

Professor Matt Griffin, School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "With its big telescope and its sophisticated and sensitive instruments, Herschel will study the cosmos at wavelengths a few hundred times longer that that of visible light.

"It will offer astronomers a very powerful tool for many studies from our own solar system to the most distant galaxies. The results will reveal how stars like the Sun are forming in our own galaxy today, how the galaxies grew and evolved over cosmic time, and how planetary systems can develop from the dust and gas around young stars. Astronomers from Cardiff will be at the forefront in making these exciting scientific discoveries."

Herschel carries the largest space telescope ever launched. Its 3.5 m-diameter mirror will give astronomers their best view yet of the Universe at far-infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths. It will peer through obscuring clouds of dust to look at the early stages of star birth and galaxy formation; it will examine the composition and chemistry of comets and planetary atmospheres in the Solar System; and it will be able to study the star-dust ejected by dying stars into interstellar space which form the raw material for planets like the Earth.

Planck will survey the whole sky in nine wavelength bands, studying the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, left over from the Big Bang, to unprecedented accuracy. Cosmologists will be able to compare these results with the predictions of their theories of the Big Bang and the fundamental physics that led to it.

To make their sensitive measurements, the Herschel and Planck telescopes and instruments must be cooled to very low temperature and kept well away from the Earth to ensure the heat of the Earth or the satellites themselves does not swamp the detectors. After the launch, the satellites will travel to their orbital locations about 1.5 million km away from the Earth. It will take several months to check out and optimise the spacecraft and the instruments, and then they will start their observations.

Professor Peter Ade said: "The Planck satellite will revolutionise our understanding of how the Universe we live in began in the first split second of the Big Bang, and it will use the early universe as a laboratory for fundamental physics, revealing new insight into the forces of nature."

Other Cardiff astronomers are also busy preparing for scientific observations with Herschel and Planck, and are leading a number of the major science programmes that the satellites will carry out.

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