Press release: 11th January 2010
The first scientific results from Europe's Planck spacecraft were released on 11 January 2011. The findings, focusing on the coldest objects in the Universe - both within our galaxy and also out to the most distant reaches of space - include an exciting variety of astronomical finds, from massive galaxy clusters to new, unidentified objects.
Planck is a flagship mission of the UK Space Agency, which funds the UK's involvement in both of Planck's scientific instruments. STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) played a key role in the design and build of these instruments and Planck's sophisticated cooling system. Astronomers from around the UK are now heavily involved in the operation of the instruments and in understanding the images and data Planck is now producing.
Planck's primary goal is to image the Cosmic Microwave Background, the afterglow of the Big Bang, but to do so it must look through the rest of the Universe. Whist scanning the whole sky, Planck detects emission from our own galaxy, the Milky Way, as well as from other galaxies. It does not see stars, however, but the gas and dust from which the stars are born, and which they create when they die.
The new results include evidence for an otherwise invisible population of galaxies shrouded in dust billions of years in the past, which formed stars at rates some 10-1000 times higher than we see in our own galaxy today. Measurements of this population had never been made at these wavelengths before. In order to see it properly, contaminating emission from a whole host of foreground sources must first be removed.
The constellations of Perseus (L) and Orphiuchus (R) used to investigate anomalous microwave emission
(Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration)
An important step towards removing this contamination has also been announced. The 'anomalous microwave emission' is a diffuse glow most strongly associated with the dense, dusty regions of our Galaxy, but its origin has been a puzzle for decades. However, data collected by Planck confirm the theory that it is coming from dust grains spinning at several tens of billion times a second by collisions with either fast-moving atoms or packets of ultraviolet light. This new understanding helps to remove this local microwave 'fog' from the Planck data with greater precision, leaving the cosmic microwave background untouched.
Professor Richard Holdaway, Director RAL Space said "With any mission we await the first results with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Planck is a technically complicated spacecraft and these excellent results are the payback for many years of innovation and development by groups from around the world, including my own team at RAL."
Among the many other results presented today, Planck has also collected new data on clusters of galaxies - the largest structures in the Universe, each containing thousands of galaxies. These show up in the Planck data as compact silhouettes against the cosmic microwave background. By surveying the whole sky, Planck stands the best chance of finding the most massive examples of these clusters. They are rare and their number is a sensitive probe of the kind of Universe we live in, how fast it is expanding, and how much matter it contains.
For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries