The Planck space telescope has returned its first images of the sky. The mission, run by the European Space Agency with participation from NASA, will map tiny differences in microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang, allowing scientists to get a better picture of the structure of the universe when it was about 400,000 years old.
Lloyd Knox, a physics professor in the UC Davis cosmology group, says that Planck will provide improved data over previous microwave sky surveys such as WMAP. It will have a higher angular resolution, allowing structures to be mapped in finer detail; lower “noise” level and better data on polarization; and better frequency coverage, allowing astronomers to filter out other objects that emit microwaves from the cosmic microwave background.
As part of the overall data analysis effort, Knox is leading the U.S. team that will use data from Planck to draw conclusions about cosmology.
“The primary science driver is understanding cosmic inflation, the very early period when the seeds of the structure of the Universe were created,” Knox says. Planck will allow cosmologists to get a glimpse of the Universe when it was much simpler than it is today, allowing them to test theories about the origins of the universe and develop new ideas.
The probe was launched on a European Ariane rocket on May 14, and is now placed in one of the LaGrange points, a gravitational stable point about 930,000 miles from Earth where it can look out into deep space.
With Planck in position, the astronomers will build up their understanding of the telescope and its capabilities and what they can get from it, Knox said.