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New Space Mission Will Look Back To The Big Bang

Last Updated on Sunday, 02 May 2010 15:21
Published on Friday, 25 February 2005 00:00


About seven years from now, an ambitious new space science mission will get under way with the launch of the European Space Agency's Planck satellite. Planck will be looking back to a time shortly after the Big Bang created the Universe. Dr Alan Heavens of the University of Edinburgh will be describing this exciting project and the UK's participation during the UK National Astronomy Meeting at the University of St Andrews. Dr Heavens is a Scientific Associate for the Planck mission.


The Cosmic Microwave Background

A few minutes after its creation, the Universe had a temperature of billions of degrees. Since then, it has gradually cooled to the point where its temperature is now just a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees C). Since this faint glow was first discovered in 1965 as the so-called Microwave Background Radiation, it has played a crucial role in our understanding of the Universe. The very existence of this radiation is firm evidence for the Big Bang theory of the expanding Universe.

Since then, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite has discovered 'ripples' in the temperature of the Universe. These represent small variations in the density of the material in the early Universe, and help to explain how matter clumped together to form stars and galaxies.



This European Space Agency (ESA) mission, currently scheduled to fly in about 2005, is a major follow-up to the COBE mission. By using detectors cooled to within a tenth of a degree of absolute zero, Planck will map the entire microwave background sky with unprecedented detail. Its two instruments will operate simultaneously at nine frequencies, with a sensitivity of two parts in a million, and an angular resolution of a few arcminutes (compared with COBE's 7 degree-wide view).

Planck's design gives it the capability of measuring many of the characteristics of the Universe - its geometry, its contents and its ultimate fate - to a high degree of accuracy for the first time. By using Planck to look at the fine detail in the temperature pattern of the sky, cosmologists should be able to test models for the origin and structure of the Universe. For example, how fast the Universe is expanding; whether it will eventually halt its expansion; the nature and quantity of dark matter, which appears to be the dominant constituent in the Universe; and the nature of the initial irregularities - did structure develop from small quantum fluctuations, or from a more exotic origin?

"It is tremendously exciting that this experiment should answer not just one, but practically all of the major questions of cosmology in one go," said Alan Heavens. In addition to this primary aim, the decoding of Planck's microwave sky maps will also produce a catalogue of more than 10,000 clusters of galaxies, and tens of thousands of quasars, starburst galaxies and other unusual objects. The clusters will be detected by the effect their hot gas has on the microwave radiation as it passes through them.


The UK and Planck

The UK's involvement is both in hardware and in the formidable data analysis task. The following centres are involved in the High Frequency Instrument: 

  • Queen Mary and Westfield College, London will design and manufacture filters and some of the optics.


  • Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh will be involved with the cooling systems.


  • The University of Leicester will offer electronic ground support.


  • The UK data analysis will be centred at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College, London, and also involve scientists at Edinburgh. 

Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories at Jodrell Bank (University of Manchester) are designing and building the most sensitive radio amplifiers ever constructed for the Low Frequency Instrument.


Notes for Editors

Planck was formerly known as COBRAS/SAMBA. It is a medium size mission in ESA's Horizon 2000 space science programme. ESA is currently examining the possibility of reducing costs by launching Planck and FIRST (Far Infrared Space Telescope) on the same satellite.

Further information on the Planck mission is available following the links on the ESA Web page at:


Dr Alan Heavens Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Royal Observatory, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, UK. Phone +44 131-668 8352 Fax +44 131-668 8356 E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Contact Information for the National Astronomy Meeting, University of St Andrews:

Press room (open 8.30 - 18.00 Tue 31 March to Thur 2 April; 9.00 - 12.00 Fri 3 April): Phone: 01334-462168 and 01334-462169; Fax: 01334-463130 

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Peter Bond, Space Science Advisor
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