Friday, 15 May 2009

A landmark day for astronomy

The Hubble Space Telescope gets an upgrade, kudos to the crew of Atlantis, and two more space telescopes were successfully launched - Herschel and Planck.

Herschel carries the largest mirror ever on a spacecraft. At 3.5m it has twice the collecting area as Hubble (2.4m), but will examine the universe in different a different part of the spectrum. It's designed to detect long wavelength infrared, it will peer through the dust which often obscures inner detail in Hubble images.

Plank is an orbiting thermometer. Carrying a range of detectors to pick up microwaves it will scan the ubiquitous background radiation of the Big Bang. With exquisite sensitivity it will add to the understanding of how the universe came to be and how the distant future may unfold.

2009: Herschel and Planck (ESA)

The data will be amazing, but we have to wait 'till next year until they reach operational position. Herschel and Planck are not intended to last very long either. A two or three years of use will deplete their coolant systems, and their great distance means no service missions are possible. But later, the unravelling of the findings over many more years, will inspire a generation.

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