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Planck unveils wonders of the Universe

11 Jan 2011

The first scientific results from Europe's Planck spacecraft featuring the coldest objects in the Universe have today been released.

Perseus (left) and Ophiuchus (right) were two constellations studied
Perseus (left) and Ophiuchus (right) were two constellations studied

Astronomers at The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory played a key role in the worldwide teams searching for an exciting variety of astronomical finds, from massive galaxy clusters to new, unidentified objects.

Observing both our Galaxy and emissions from the distant reaches of space, Planck is a flagship mission of the UK Space Agency, which funds the UK's involvement in both of Planck's scientific instruments.

Astronomers from around the UK are now heavily involved in the operation of Planck's two scientific instruments and in understanding the images and data it is now producing.

Dr David Parker, Director of Space Science and Exploration for the UK Space Agency, said: "We're proud to be playing a key role in this amazing discovery machine.

“These new results are all vital pieces of a jigsaw that could give us a full picture of the evolution of both our own cosmic backyard – the Milky Way galaxy that we live in – as well as the early history of the whole Universe."

The routine phase of Planck's mission began on 13th August 2009. The observatory's primary goal is to image the Cosmic Microwave Background, the afterglow of the Big Bang, but to do so it must look through the rest of the Universe.

Whist scanning the whole sky, Planck detects emission from our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, as well as from other galaxies. It does not see stars, however, but the gas and dust from which the stars are born, and which they create when they die.

Dr Clive Dickinson, from The University of Manchester, said: "We are now becoming rather confident that the anomalous emission is due to nano-scale spinning grains of dust, which rotate up to ten thousand million times per second. This is a great result made possible by the exceptional quality of the Planck data."

One of the advantages of Planck's broad wavelength coverage is that it can detect very cold dust both within our Galaxy and beyond. Cold clumps of dust in our Galaxy, of which Planck has found over 900, represent the first stages of starbirth.

Additionally, a survey of around 500 galaxies within a few billion light years has shown that some of them contain much more cold dust than previously thought.

Dr Althea Wilkinson, from The University of Manchester, added: “We could hardly imagine this point when we were building amplifiers for the Low Frequency Instrument at Jodrell Bank more than five years ago.

“It is fantastic to have reached the stage where we see real science emerging."

Planck continues to survey the Universe. Its next data release is scheduled for January 2013 and will reveal the cosmic microwave background in unprecedented detail, the opening act of the cosmic drama, a picture of the beginning of everything.

Notes for editors

Images produced by Planck are available on request from the Press Office.

Many of the new results are from Planck's Early Release Compact Source Catalogue. Drawn from Planck's continuing survey of the entire sky, the catalogue contains thousands of very cold, individual sources which the scientific community is now free to explore.

ESA's Planck mission maps the sky in nine frequencies using two state-of-the-art instruments, designed to produce high-sensitivity, multi-frequency measurements of the diffuse sky radiation: the High Frequency Instrument (HFI) includes the frequency bands 100-857 GHz (wavelengths of 3mm to 0.35mm), and the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI) includes the frequency bands 30-70 GHz (wavelengths of 10mm to 4mm).

The first scientific results to emerge from the mission, based on the scans gathered during Planck's first all-sky survey, between 13 August 2009 and 6 June 2010, are being presented this week (10-14 January 2011) at the conference "The Millimeter and Submillimeter Sky in the Planck Mission Era" held in Paris, France.

Jodrell Bank's role in Planck

Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA) is directly involved with the two lowest frequencies of the Low Frequency Instrument, the 30 and 44 GHz radiometers. These have 4 and 6 detectors respectively, operating at 20K (-253.15°C or -423.67°F). The resolution on the sky is 33 and 27 arc minutes, and the sensitivity 1.6 and 2.4 micro K (1s, over 12 months). The cryogenic low noise amplifiers which are the heart of the radiometers were developed at Jodrell Bank, with help from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia, USA.

Dr B. Maffei and Dr G. Pisano are involved in the other focal instrument, the HFI. First at Cardiff University and now at the University of Manchester, they have played a major role in the design, development and calibration of the Focal Plane Unit, in particular the cold optics, in collaboration with the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale - France, Maynooth University - Ireland and JPL/Caltech - USA.

The work to understand the Galactic emission seen by Planck is being co-led from Jodrell Bank by Emeritus Professor Rod Davies. A number of projects are led by Jodrell Bank scientists, including Professor Richard Davis and Dr Clive Dickinson. Each of the 14 projects focusses on one aspect of the Galaxy as seen by Planck, including the electrons that gyrate in the Galactic magnetic field, the ionized gas that pervades the interstellar medium and the dust grains that emit across the entire frequency range that Planck is sensitive to. Jodrell Bank is also leading the calibration and identifying systematics in the LFI data.

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Daniel Cochlin
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The University of Manchester
0161 275 8387