Two deep space observatories dedicated to a better understanding of the Universe
(Cannes, May 14, 2009) -- The Herschel and Planck satellites, built by Thales Alenia Space as prime and platform contractor for the European Space Agency, have been successfully launched by an Ariane 5 rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou. These two space observatories, the most complex ever built in Europe, will drift to reach a stable point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth (Lagrange 2 point), to ensure the thermal conditions needed to observe some of the coldest radiation in the Universe.
The Herschel satellite is the largest-ever space telescope into orbit to explore the coldest parts of the Universe. It is fitted with a primary silicon carbide mirror 3.5 meters in diameter, offering twice the surface area of the Hubble mirror, but with only about one-third of the weight (300 kg versus 840 kg !). It is the first space observatory to cover the spectrum between 55 and 672 um (far infrared and submillimeter radiation), to detect radiation from objects at temperatures between 5 and 50 K (-268/-223oC) and the first telescope able to see through the "fog" caused by cosmic dust, to observe the "fossil light" from the oldest events in the Universe.
Planck will be the time machine to see the dawn of the Universe and will be the first European satellite to study the cosmic background noise, meaning the "fossil" radiation of the very first light in the Universe, emitted some 380,000 years after the Big Bang, over 13 billion years ago. It is fitted with a 1.5-meter telescope operating in the millimeter and submillimeter bands, at wavelengths between 300 um and 1 cm. It will provide a complete map of the sky in 15 months: 500 million raw data points transmitted to construct 50-million-pixel maps, from which 20 fundamental cosmic parameters can be determined and will observe the infinite variations (anisotropic) in the fossil radiation (+/-0.0002o), with sensitivity close to the limits of the laws of astrophysics (about a millionth of a degree).
"With the launch of Herschel and Planck in 2009 the international year of astronomy, Thales Alenia Space culminates eight years of intense teamwork with ESA, the scientific community and one of the largest industrial teams ever assembled for this type of project," said Reynald Seznec, CEO of Thales Alenia Space. "The extremely high level of performance offered by these two satellites reflects the technical expertise and high-quality industrial facilities deployed by Thales Alenia Space for European space astronomy programs. Looking beyond Herschel and Planck, we will continue to offer our expertise and capabilities to the scientific community. In fact, we are already participating in studies for upcoming astronomy and astrophysics missions to be developed within the scope of ESA's Cosmic Vision program."
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