The High Frequency Instrument aboard the Planck space telescope has completed its survey of the remnant light from the Big Bang explosion that created our universe. The sensor ran out of coolant on Jan. 14, as expected, ending its ability to detect this faint energy.
"The High Frequency Instrument has reached the end of its observing life, but the Low Frequency Instrument will continue observing for another year, and analysis of data from both instruments is still in the early phase," said Charles Lawrence, the U.S. Planck project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The scientific payoff from the High Frequency Instrument's brilliantly successful operation is still to come."
NASA plays an important role in the Planck mission, which is led by the European Space Agency. In addition to helping with the analysis of the data, NASA contributed several key components to the mission itself. JPL built the state-of-the-art detectors that allowed the High Frequency Instrument to detect icy temperatures down to nearly absolute zero, the coldest temperature theoretically attainable.
Less than half a million years after the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago, the initial fireball cooled to temperatures of about 4,000 degrees Celsius (about 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit), releasing bright, visible light. As the universe has expanded, it has cooled dramatically, and its early light has faded and shifted to microwave wavelengths.
By studying patterns imprinted in that light today, scientists hope to understand the Big Bang and the very early universe, as it appeared long before galaxies and stars first formed.
Planck has been measuring these patterns by surveying the whole sky with its High Frequency Instrument and its Low Frequency Instrument. Combined, they give Planck unparalleled wavelength coverage and the ability to resolve faint details.
Launched in May 2009, the minimum requirement for success was for the spacecraft to complete two whole surveys of the sky. In the end, Planck worked perfectly in completing not two, but five whole-sky surveys with both instruments.
The Low Frequency Instrument will continue surveying the sky for a large part of 2012, providing data to improve the quality of the final results. The first results on the Big Bang and very early universe will not come for another year.
Read the full European Space Agency news release at http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Planck/SEMXWNMXDXG_0.html .
Planck is a European Space Agency mission, with significant participation from NASA. NASA's Planck Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for both of Planck's science instruments. European, Canadian and U.S. Planck scientists will work together to analyze the Planck data. More information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/planck and http://www.esa.int/planck.