A rocket has successfully blasted off carrying what the European Space Agency has called “two of the most sophisticated astonomical spacecraft ever built.” The Ariane 5 lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport at Kourou in French Guyana carrying a pair of state-of-the-art satellites, designed to look deep back into time.
The Herschel observatory is the biggest space telescope ever launched, with a mirror one and a half times bigger than that on Hubble.
The Planck observatory is to detect microwave radiation, to build up a picture of the universe just after the Big Bang.
It is probably the most expensive piggy-back the world has ever seen. Two satellite missions costing nearly 2-billion euros hitching a ride on the same rocket to save money.
Planck and Herschel’s instruments are so sensitive, they are heading for a spot two months flying time away to be sure the earth and the moon don not interfere.
The pair are designed to give astronomers an unprecedented view of the universe.
Planck has microwave detectors looking for Cosmic Background Radiation — energy left over from the Big Bang. It will scan the sky to build up a picture of the newborn universe 14 billion years ago.
ESA Planck Project Scientist, Jan Tauber said:
“The whole telescope itself is rotating slowly around this (central) axis… and as it rotates, basically it sweeps around the sky, and it collects light from a big circle around the sky. And as time goes by, the satellite essentially moves in an orbit around the sun. After about six months it will have covered the whole sky, and then we can make a picture.”
Herschel is the largest space-telescope ever launched and will concentrate on the far-infrared — a part of the spectrum that will allow astronomers to look deep through clouds of dust and gas and witness the birth of stars and galaxies as they are being formed.
That can not be done on earth — partly because the atmosphere acts as a barrier to the far-infrared waves — and partly because infrared waves emitted from the earth itself would interfere with the image.
Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist, said:
“All of this happens inside the cloud, we cannot see it from the outside. Because the heat which is emitted by the forming star cannot get out. With long infrared waves, we can see this heat through the cloud. We can see inside the cloud, if you like. “
Herschel’s mission is expected to last at least 3 years. Planck’s lifespan is somehwat more limited at just 15 months. And astronomers are not only excited about what they predict they will see – they are also anxiously waiting to see if there will be data that they had not expected.