Herschel and Planck lift off

En route to the origins of the Universe

Two of the most ambitious missions ever attempted to unveil the secrets of the darkest, coldest and oldest parts of the Universe got off to a successful start with the dual launch of ESA’s far infrared space telescope Herschel and cosmic background mapper Planck on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana.

Herschel, equipped with the largest mirror ever launched into space, will observe a mostly uncharted part of the electromagnetic spectrum so as to study the birth of stars and galaxies as well as dust clouds and planet-forming discs around stars. In addition, it will be the most effective tool ever devised to look for the presence of water in remote parts of the Universe.

Planck is designed to map tiny irregularities in fossil radiation left over from the very first light in the Universe, emitted shortly after the Big Bang. Planck will have enough sensitivity to reach the experimental limits of what can be observed, thus peering into the early Universe and studying its constituents such as the elusive dark matter and dark energy that continue to be a puzzle to the science community.

Herschel and Planck are currently on a highly elongated orbit that will eventually bring them to an average distance of a little less than1 million miles from the Earth.

After about two months, the two satellites will begin their scientific observations from two separate orbits around L2, where the combined pull of the Earth and Sun creates a gravitational stability point. Once there, undisturbed by thermal and radiation interference caused by the Sun, the Earth or the Moon, Herschel will observe pre-selected celestial targets, while Planck will perform a continuous survey of the overall sky.

“With Herschel we can resume the pioneering work undertaken with ISO, ESA’s first infrared space observatory operating in the second half of the 90s, and we are building upon the experience gained to date by the world wide scientific community in the field of infrared astronomy,” said David Southwood, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “We now have much more advanced technology at our disposal. Together with our partners across the world and with the scientific community, which have been waiting for this unique moment for a long time, we will work hard to fulfill Herschel’s ambitious promise, confident that we will achieve a revolutionary breakthrough in the urgent quests of today’s space science.”

“Planck is ESA’s first mission dedicated to the study of relic radiation from the Big Bang, designed to continue the marvellous work undertaken over the last 20 years by Russia’s Relikt, and NASA’s COBE and WMAP satellites,” Professor Southwood continued. “With Planck, we are pushing the boundaries of our knowledge to the very limits of what can be observed according to theory. It is a tremendous technical challenge but helping to bring about a great leap forward in our understanding of the origin and perhaps the fate of our Universe will be a tremendous reward too!”