Two launches approach

Next week is an exciting time for astronomical space missions. On Monday 11th May, Space Shuttle Atlantis will be launched as Servicing Mission 4 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a much needed, and unfortunately final, servicing mission and Rob gives all the details.

On Thursday 14th May at 14:12 BST, the European Space Agency's Planck and Herschel spacecraft will be launched on a single Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guiana. These missions are two amazing telescopes which work at different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and will cover different astronomical questions.

Herschel will be the largest infrared telescope ever launched with a whopping 3.5 metre diameter primary mirror. It will cover the spectrum from the far-infrared to the sub-mm and will study the origin and evolution of some of the earliest stars and galaxies. It will operate as an observatory with the opportunity for scientists to apply for some of the observing time for specific scientific projects.

Planck is the mission closest to my heart. It will look at the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation that comes from a time 300,000 years after the big bang when the Universe cooled enough to allow protons and electrons to form simple atoms and stop being a plasma.

Planck's primary mirror is only 1.5 metres (about 60% the diameter of the Hubble which is 2.4 m) but the key parts are the fantastic array of detectors covering the spectrum from 30 GHz all the way up to 857 GHz. With such a huge range of frequencies covered, two different detector technologies are needed; radio receivers and bolometers. Planck will be following in the footsteps of COBE and WMAP which have mapped the entire Cosmic Microwave Background before. This time there will be even higher sensitivity, better resolution and a chance to investigate the polarization of the light in more detail than ever before.

Unlike Andrew and others, I'm not going to be at the launch but will be watching it live via ESA TV, Arianespace and the ESA website. You can also join Herschel and Planck on Twitter (live launch coverage via @Planck and probably @HerschelPlanck), Facebook, Flickr, and on the UK mission blogs.

After launch there is going to be a very busy period of instrument checking and calibration as Planck and Herschel head towards the special, and increasingly busy, L2. For Planck this will last about three months after which the main mission will start. Things will then go very quiet for a couple of years as the science and instrument teams collect and process the science data to tease out as much science as possible. Finally, a few years from now, the results of the first two full-sky surveys will be released. That is going to be a very exciting indeed. Until then, there is still a lot of work to do. It's going to be great.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 08th May 2009 (19:36 BST) | Permalink
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