May 14, 2009

Successful Launch Of Herschel And Planck Satellites

Ground crews at Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana celebrated the successful tandem launch of the Herschel and Planck satellites aboard an Ariane 5 ECA heavy rocket on Thursday.

The rocket, carrying the payload of the two scientific space observatories, left the launch center in Kourou on the northeast coast of South America at 10.12 am (1312 GMT).

The satellites established their first contact with Earth about 10 minutes after the launch and are expected to separate from the rocket in order to begin their 60-day trip towards their respective orbits around the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system (L2), some 1.5 million km from Earth, in the direction opposite to the Sun.

Herschel separated 26 minutes after the launch and Planck followed two minutes later.

Herschel and Planck are the largest and most powerful telescopes ever built and are designed to provide astronomers with a better look into the origins of the Universe and the formation of stars and galaxies.

Herschel, the largest space telescope ever launched, is designed to observe and record data on infrared radiation emitted by galaxies, stars, planets and comets.

It will be able to see through clouds of dust that currently obscure astronomers' view of star and galaxy formation by studying infrared light. It will also analyze the composition of comets and planets in our own solar system as well as the dust ejected by dying stars, which spread the heavy elements necessary for life through the Universe.

"We will work hard to fulfill Herschel's ambitious promise, confident that we will achieve a revolutionary breakthrough in the urgent quests of today's space science," said David Southwood, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

Planck will offer scientists the best available measurements of the cosmic microwave background"”the relic radiation that still exists from the Big Bang.

This will provide a better understanding of how the structure of the modern Universe came to be and will identify the ancient formation process of galaxies and galaxy clusters.

"With Planck, we are pushing the boundaries of our knowledge to the very limits of what can be observed according to theory," Southwood said.

Both ESA and NASA astronomers are also hopeful that the data gathered by the two satellites will offer more insight into the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which constitutes most of the universe.

"Herschel and Planck will enable us to go very far back in time, to the origins of our Universe and it is only by better understanding our Universe's overall past that we can help to better define the future of our planet, the Earth, not as a self-standing celestial body but as an integral part of the whole system," said ESA's Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain.

A spokesman for the European Space Agency (ESA) said the two missions are among the most ambitious ever carried out by Europe and mark the crossing of new frontiers in the field of space-based astronomy.


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