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Planck Space Observatory Begins To Reveal Its Secrets

The first data from one of the most important space observatories is set to change the way we understand at the Universe

It’s a big week for astronomers, who have an exciting new dataset to play with courtesy of the Planck Space Observatory, which is currently surveying the skies while orbiting the L2 Lagrangian Point some 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

Planck’s most important goal is to measure the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang, in unprecedented detail. In fact, it’s unlikely that any future spacecraft will do better. That’s because the quality of the final data depends on how well astronomers can subtract nearer objects from the background rather than on the inherent resolution of Planck’s instruments themselves. Whatever picture emerges is likely to be as good as it gets.

But the Planck mission has other goals too. Astronomers want to use it to build up a map of galaxy clusters on huge scales, to spot instances of gravitational lensing of the CMB and to look at the Milky Way, the planets and the Sun.

Planck has been collecting data continuously since 13 August 2009 and has almost completed three surveys of the entire sky.

This week, the Planck Collaboration of over 200 scientists from around the world release a first set of data early. They’re doing this so astronomers can train other instruments on any objects of interest.

In particular, they want to give the Herschel infrared space observatory a chance to peak at any goodies Planck uncovers. Herschel was launched with Planck and is also orbiting L2 cooled by liquid helium which is gradually boiling away. Consequently, Herschel has a limited lifespan of only 3 years, which it is already more than half-way through.

The Planck Collaboration has released its data in 23 papers placed on the arXiv this week. It’s clear the data is beginning to throw new light on mysteries such as the strange emissions from dust in the Magellanic Clouds and the properties of the interstellar medium in our galaxy.

But it’s also clear that we’re going to hear a lot more about Planck in the coming years. I’ve placed links to all the new papers below, in case you want to get a head start.

Refs: Planck Early Results: The Planck mission Planck Early Results: The thermal performance of Planck Planck Early Results: The all-sky Early Sunyaev-Zeldovich cluster sample Planck early results: XMM-Newton follow-up for validation of Planck cluster candidates Planck Early Results: Calibration of the local galaxy cluster Sunyaev-Zeldovich scaling relations Planck early results: Cluster Sunyaev-Zeldovich optical scaling relations Planck Early Results: The Power Spectrum Of Cosmic Infrared Background Anisotropies Planck Early Results: All sky temperature and dust optical depth from Planck and IRAS: Constraints on the “dark gas” in our galaxy Planck Early Results: New Light on Anomalous Microwave Emission from Spinning Dust Grains Planck Early Results: Properties of the interstellar medium in the Galactic plane. Planck Early Results: The submillimetre properties of a sample of Galactic cold clumps Planck Early Results: The Galactic Cold Core Population revealed by the first all-sky survey Planck Early Results: Dust in the diffuse interstellar medium and the Galactic halo Planck Early Results: Thermal dust in Nearby Molecular Clouds Planck early results: First assessment of the Low Frequency Instrument in-flight performance Planck early results: first assessment of the High Frequency Instrument in-flight performance Planck Early Results: The Low Frequency Instrument data processing Planck Early Results: The Early Release Compact Source Catalog Planck early results: Statistical analysis of Sunyaev-Zeldovich scaling relations for X-ray galaxy clusters Planck Early Results: Statistical properties of extragalactic radio sources in the Planck Early Release Compact Source Catalogue Planck Early Results: The Planck View of Nearby Galaxies Planck Early Results: Origin of the submm excess dust emission in the Magellanic Clouds Planck early results: Spectral energy distributions and radio continuum spectra of northern extragalactic radio sources Planck Early Results: The High Frequency Instrument data processing

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