Wednesday, 6 May 2009

UK scientists set sights on Universe

On May 14th, ESA's Herschel and Planck satellites will be launched together into space where they will collect the most detailed information yet about the birth and evolution of our Universe and its stars and galaxies. The UK is playing major roles in both missions, with funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
Artists impression of Herschel (credit ESA) from

Carrying the largest telescope to be flown in space, the Herschel Space Observatory will view the Universe at far infrared wavelengths. It will peer through obscuring clouds of dust to look at the early stages of star birth and galaxy formation; it will examine the composition and chemistry of comets and planetary atmospheres in the Solar System; and it will be able to study the star-dust ejected by dying stars into interstellar space which form the raw material for planets like the Earth.

UK participation in Herschel includes leadership of an international consortium that designed and built the SPIRE instrument. The UK SPIRE team is also responsible for the development of software for instrument control and processing of the scientific data, and will lead the in-flight testing and operation of SPIRE.
Artists impression of Planck (credit ESA) from

By studying the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) - the relic radiation from the Big Bang - the Planck satellite will allow us to travel back in time, nearly 14 thousand million years, towards the beginning of space and time as we know it. Its mission is to understand the origin and evolution of our Universe and look for the seeds of modern day structures, such as galaxies and galaxy clusters, in the subtle variations in the CMB.

The information gathered could also tell us more about the nature of the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which constitutes most of the Universe, and help us understand more about the future of our Universe and whether it will continue its expansion forever, or collapse into a Big Crunch.

UK groups are involved in building the two focal plane instruments for Planck and UK astronomers are also posed to work on the scientific observations that Planck will make.

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