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Home > iSGTW - 20 May 2009 > Feature - Countdown: World's most sophisticated thermometer blasts off into space

Countdown! World’s most sophisticated thermometer blasts off into space


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Arianespace sent into orbit a scientific satellite known as the Planck scientific observatory, for the European Space Agency.  The launch process took the new instrument from the ground into space in less than an hour. Image courtesy ESA

On 1:12 pm on Thursday, May 14, the Planck satellite — arguably the world’s largest thermometer — lifted off from the European Space Agency’s launch pad in French Guiana.

The launch began with a 6-second vertical climb. The onboard computers optimized the motion of the rocket in real time, in order to minimize fuel consumption. The main stage engine took the launcher into an intermediate orbit before the end stage carried the payload into the final orbit.

The main stage of the launcher fell back, just off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The launcher will remain at an altitude of about 852 kilometers travelling at about 10,000 meters/second.

For the next six months, Planck will be traveling to a place called ‘L2,′ a point in space where objects sit ‘behind’ the Earth with respect to the sun. L2 is a good spot for space-based observatories because they are effectively ‘towed’ around in orbit with the Earth but remain roughly stationary with respect to it. L2 is 1.5 million kilometers away from the Earth, far enough away to avoid the emission of heat from the Earth, the moon and the sun — which could thow off Planck’s ultra-sensitive heat detectors.

While the universe is cold, darn cold, at –270 degrees Celsius, there are in fact slight temperature variations between one part of the sky and another. By taking temperature measurements of this background heat — detectable as microwaves — the Planck satellite will be recording relics from the Big Bang.

When our universe burst violently into existence, energy was initially trapped in plasma. Light was first able to escape this fireball about 300,000 years later. It is this “first light,” still around today as microwaves, that Planck will record — the oldest light anywhere in the universe.

It will give information about the infant state of our universe and measure more accurately the densities of ordinary matter, dark matter and dark energy (masses that seem to occur in puzzling proportions: respectively about 4, 21 and 75 percent).

An artist’s impression of Planck. The Planck satellite, set to launch next spring, will collect information about the early universe. Image courtesty of ESA 2002. Illustration by Medialab.

From readings to discovery

The mission is expected to produce 17 terabytes of data during its 14-month run. Its data will come in a continuous stream and require about 100 teraflops of computing power for storage and analysis. For part of this analysis, the Planck community is using grid technology. Claudio Vuerli of Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Trieste, Italy, works with the grid team charged with managing the data processing for one of Planck’s two detecting instruments — the one specializing in lower frequencies traces.

“For the last few months we’ve been focusing on getting ready for the launch,” says Vuerli, group leader of the astrophysics’ Virtual Organization of Enabling Grids for E-sciencE. “A mission of this scale and complexity requires a lot of ground-based testing and calibration during the pre-launch phase to fully understand the instruments and software behavior in preparation for real data-taking.”

Many of Vuerli’s colleagues have been working on Planck since its conception 12 years ago. As the fruits of years of preparations were about to be sent into the sky, Vuerli said, “excitement was mounting.”

Other members of the EGEE Planck-Low Frequency Instrument Consortium work at the Instituto de Física de Cantabria, Spain. To learn more about cosmic microwave background and the Planck satellite mission visit the European Space Agency Web site and the Planck Operations homepage.

For a minute-by-minute account of the liftoff, click here.

Danielle Venton, EGEE

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