Case study

Planck

Mission to help scientists answer some of the most fundamental questions about the birth and evolution of the Universe.

Planck spacecraft
Artist's impression of the Planck spacecraft. Credit: ESA.

Planck’s mission was to examine the ancient radiation released shortly after the Universe was formed, known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. Scientists are able to study all the way back to the time of the Big Bang itself 13.7 billion years ago years ago using this data . Mission overview:

  • launched on 14 May 2009
  • switched off 23 October 2013 following the scheduled exhaustion of its helium coolant
  • placed in a distant long-term stable parking orbit around the Sun
  • in post operations phase with the next data release scheduled for late 2014

The Planck mission attempts to predict the future of the Universe by studying its past. Scientists hope it will help them answer key questions such as:

  • how old is the Universe and how quickly is it expanding?
  • will it continue to grow forever or ultimately collapse?
  • what is the nature of dark matter and dark energy?

The mission is providing key information about how our Galaxy and others first formed and will give us clues about when they may end.

For more detailed information, visit the UK Planck website.

Mission facts

Planck is named after the German scientist, Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.

Dark matter emits no observable electromagnetic radiation yet astronomers believe it makes up most of our Universe. Its presence is thought to account for why galaxies do not fly apart even though the stars in a galaxy do not weigh enough to hold them together. But as it cannot be observed directly, this ‘dark’ (or missing) matter must be detected indirectly through its gravitational pull on light and sources of light.

ESA launched Planck together with Herschel on 14 May 2009. The two spacecraft then separated from the launch vehicle to go on their independent missions.

The Planck spacecraft made its observations 1.5 million km above the Earth. This ensured measurements weren’t affected by heat from the Earth, Moon or Sun.

Technology

More than 40 European scientific institutes, and a small number of US ones, helped build the instruments on Planck.

The telescope worked with two instruments, one to detect high frequency cosmic microwave background signals - HFI, the other low frequency signals - LFI. A complex system of refrigerators helped to achieve the necessary temperature for the experiments.

UK involvement

The UK is playing a major role in the Planck mission. A number of UK institutes and companies form part of the consortium that built the two focal plane instruments, HFI and LFI. The Jodrell Bank Observatory at The University of Manchester produced critical elements of the LFI receiver modules and is now a key contributor to the LFI data processing activities.

Cardiff University, STFC RAL and SEA were involved with hardware development for HFI, while various UK research groups including Imperial College London and University of Cambridge form the London Planck Analysis Centre and Cambridge Planck Analysis Centre respectively.

These groups are involved with data analysis and simulation for the HFI data analysis and simulation software.

Though nominal spacecraft operations have ended, the UK Space Agency continues to fund post operational support to calibrate and archive data into a format suitable for scientific exploitation.

Published 28 April 2014