At 13:12 UTC today, two European observatories blasted off without a hitch onboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. Controllers in Germany confirmed readings from both spacecraft about 40 minutes after liftoff, following their half hour flight and deployment from the launch vehicle. CEO of Arianespace, Jean-Yves Le Gall, described the launch as “perfect”. Both spacecraft are now en route to their designated L2 point approximately 1.5 million kilometers away. Now, both of these missions are actually a really big deal for astronomy…
Firstly, we have Herschel. To me, infrared astronomy is by far the best astronomy! By observing the infrared, we can really draw a lot information about the structure, and particularly the formation of stars and galaxies. Since its launch in 2003, I have been an avid follower of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (named for the great Lyman Spitzer) and it continues to make astounding discoveries and send back beautiful images to this day (though now on borrowed time – it is expected to run out of helium coolant “at any time”.)
Spitzer has peered into stellar nurseries to show us baby stars, and revealed the intricate structure of Andromeda’s inner dust lanes. Now, Herschel (named for William Herschel: discoverer of Uranus) will become the new standard in infrared astronomy. It has a massive 3.5 metre Cassegrain telescope, making it the largest space telescope ever launched, and crucially, it will bridge the gap between previous space-based infrared missions and ground-based observations, by observing a waveband of ~55-672µm. Herschel’s huge mirror and cutting edge photometric technology will allow it to observe some of the coldest and most distant objects in the known universe. We can expect a lot of amazing science to come out of this mission.
Then, there’s Planck. This spacecraft, named for the German quantum physicist, Max Planck, is the third generation Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) mapping probe. It is the successor to WMAP (2001) which itself followed COBE (1989) and its principal mission objective is to measure the polarisation and intensity of anisotropies in the primordial CMB radiation that permeates the universe as a remnant of the big bang. It will also be carrying out a number of other scientific tasks, including measurements of our own galaxy’s magnetic field. Its scanning sensors will achieve several times the resolution of WMAP, with around 10 times the sensitivity, and the findings of this mission will be extremely exciting for cosmology buffs, as they will actually help us to understand the size and shape of the whole universe.
Personally, it’s thrilling for me to see these two great missions launch together in yet another flying success for Arianespace and ESA. These spacecraft will greatly influence our understanding of cosmic origins in several years. Excited? You should be!