Introducing the ‘coolest’ spacecraft ever made


Written on Monday, February 12, 2007 by Gemini

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck mission, which will study the conditions present in our Universe shortly after the Big Bang.

Professor Keith Mason, CEO of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), who fund the mission, said, “Planck presents a tremendous opportunity to further our knowledge and understanding of the parameters that control the functioning of our Universe” Planck, will travel back to the dawn of time to investigate with the highest precision ever the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the remnantsof the radiation that filled the Universe immediately after the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago.

Planck will be sensitive to temperature variations of a few millionths of a degree and will map the full sky in nine wavelengths. The tiny differences in the CMB are like the marks in a fossil, revealing details about the organism they come from – in this case, the physical processes at the beginning of the Universe.

Planck carries a 1.5 metre diameter telescope that feeds the microwave radiation to two instruments which will image the sky at different frequencies. The conditions that Planck will be studying present the real challenge. In order to achieve its science objectives, Planck’s detectors have to operate at very low and stable temperatures. The spacecraft is equipped with a sophisticated cryogenic cooling system which cools the instruments to levels close to absolute zero (-273.15 degrees C), ranging from -253 degrees Celsius to only a tenth of a degree above absolute zero.

Dr Tom Bradshaw who worked on the cooling system comments, “Planck has a layered cooling system, akin to a Russian doll, which keeps the instruments cooled so that their own heat does not interfere with the science measurements.”

Planck is scheduled to be launched on 31st July 2008 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guiana. It will be launched in a dual configuration with Herschel, ESA’s mission to study the formation of galaxies, stars and planetary systems in the infrared. Once operational both missions will study different aspects of the “cold” cosmos providing complimentary information on previously unknown regions of the Universe.

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