The European Space Agency released a remarkable new view of theuniverse as seen from the solar system at the EuroScience forum inTurin. It is the first full-sky image from the €600m Planck spacetelescope, launched last year to observe the universe’s microwaveradiation from a vantage point more than 1m km from Earth. Thesatellite’s main mission is to help cosmologists understand whathappened immediately after the creation of the universe 13.7bnyears ago.
“This single image captures both our own cosmic backyard – theMilky Way galaxy that we live in – and also the subtle imprint ofthe Big Bang from which the whole universe emerged,” said DavidParker, science director of the UK Space Agency. Planck is thethird microwave satellite of its type. Its images are much sharper- and should therefore be more informative – than the twopioneering US missions that gave astronomers their first maps ofmicrowave background radiation.
Trillion trillion trillion
In the foreground, across the middle of the image, is the hotwhite disc of our own Milky Way galaxy, with streamers of cold bluedust reaching above and below it. This galactic web is where newstars are being formed, and Planck has found many locations whereindividual stars are edging towards birth or just beginning theircycle of development. Less spectacular but central to the missionis the mottled red-and-orange backdrop at the top and bottom of thepicture: the “cosmic microwave background” radiation. It is theoldest light in the universe, the remains of the fireball out ofwhich it sprang into existence.
In due course the Planck scientists will use digital imageanalysis to remove as much as possible of the Milky Way radiationin the foreground, leaving the cosmic microwave background. Theyhope that small variations in the pattern will reveal clues about”cosmic inflation”, the expansion of the universe by a factor of atrillion trillion trillion in the first moments of itsexistence.
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