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Planck Mission Peels Back Layers of Universe

January 11, 2011

Berkeley Lab Contact: Jon Bashor, [email protected], 510-486-5849
NASA/JPL Contact: Whitney Clavin, [email protected], 818-354-4673


This image of the microwave sky was synthesized using data spanning the range of light frequencies detected by Planck. Image credit: ESA, HFI & LFI consortia (2010)

The Planck mission released today a new catalog of data from its initial maps of the entire sky. The catalogue includes everything from thousands of never-before-seen dusty cocoons where stars are forming, to some of the most massive clusters of galaxies. Planck is a European Space Agency mission with significant contributions from NASA.

"NASA is pleased to support this important mission, and we have eagerly awaited Planck's first discoveries," said Jon Morse, NASA's Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We look forward to continued collaboration with ESA and more outstanding science to come."

Planck launched in May 2009 to probe the universe just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, an explosive event that created the universe about 13.7 billion years ago. The spacecraft's state-of-the-art detectors will ultimately survey the whole sky up to five times, measuring the cosmic microwave background, or radiation left over from the Big Bang. The data will help scientists decipher clues about the evolution, fate, and fabric of our universe.

While these cosmology results won't be ready for another two years or so, early observations of specific objects in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as more distant galaxies, are being released today.

"The data we're releasing now are from what lies between us and the cosmic microwave background," said Charles Lawrence, the U.S. project scientist for Planck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We will ultimately subtract these data out to get at our cosmic microwave background signal. But by themselves, these early observations offer up new information about objects in our universe -- those that are close and faraway, and everything in between."

The U.S. Planck collaboration performed its data analysis for this release at NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) and at the Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where the team has both a dedicated cluster and a significant allocation of time on the NERSC supercomputers.

Berkeley Lab's participation in the Planck data analysis is coordinated by Julian Borrill, one of the leaders of the Computational Cosmology Center (C3) in the Computational Research Division, and includes Christopher Cantalupo and Theodore Kisner of C3 and George Smoot and Martin White of the Physics Division.

Planck is observing the sky at nine wavelengths of light, ranging from infrared to radio waves. Its technology has greatly improved sensitivity and resolution over its predecessor missions, NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer and Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

The result is a windfall of data on known and never-before-seen cosmic objects. Planck has catalogued about 10,000 star-forming "cold cores," thousands of which are newly discovered. These are dark and dusty nurseries where baby stars are just beginning to take shape. They are also some of the coldest places in the universe. Planck's new catalogue includes some of the coldest cores ever seen, with temperatures as low as just seven degrees above absolute zero, or minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We use the coldest objects in space -- Planck's detectors chilled to only 0.1 Kelvin -- to see the coldest gas and dust in the Milky Way," said Lawrence.

The new catalogue also contains some of the most massive clusters of galaxies known, including a handful of newfound ones. The most massive of these holds the equivalent of a million billion suns worth of mass, making it one of the most massive galaxy clusters known.

Galaxies in our universe are bound together into these larger clusters, forming a lumpy network across the cosmos. Scientists study the clusters to learn more about the evolution of galaxies, as well as dark matter and dark energy, the exotic substances that constitute the majority of our universe.

New Planck observations also provide unique data on the pools of hot gas that permeate roughly 14,000 smaller clusters of galaxies.

"Because Planck is observing the whole sky, it is giving us a comprehensive look at how all the smaller structures of the universe are connected to the whole," said Jim Bartlett, a U.S. Planck team member at JPL and the Universite Paris Diderot in France.

Other additions to the Planck catalogue are the best data yet on the "cosmic infrared background," which is made up of light from stars evolving in the early universe; new observations of extremely energetic galaxies spewing radio jets, and more. The catalogue covers about one-and-one-half sky scans.

For more information about Planck, visit: www.nasa.gov/planck and http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Planck/index.html.

This article was adapted from a JPL press release written by Whitney Clavin.

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