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Planck Spacecraft

ESA's Planck

Planck © ESA/AOES Medialab

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On 14th May 2009 the Planck spacecraft was launched successfully from French Guiana on a mission to study the fading glow of the Big Bang. It has now taken its first glimpse of the Universe and will continue to survey the sky over the coming months.

Scientists and engineers at Jodrell Bank designed and built radio receivers at the heart of one of the major instruments on board Planck. These are the most sensitive receivers ever built to work at these radio wavelengths.

The launch marked an exciting milestone in our 14-year long involvement with Planck but the story is only just beginning. The spacecraft is now at a point four times farther away than the Moon, from where it is performing its scientific mission.

Looking back in time almost 14 billion years to the origin of the universe, Planck is studying the ripples in the cosmic microwave background radiation which led to the birth of the first stars and galaxies.

Scientists at the University of Manchester have played a crucial role in the development and construction of the spacecraft. They are continuing to play a significant role in the analysis of the scientific data which Planck will produce over the coming years.

Scientists at Manchester are also using the Herschel spacecraft which was launched on the same rocket as Planck. Its 3.5m mirror, the largest single mirror ever built for a space telescope, collects long-wavelength radiation from some of the coldest and most distant objects in the Universe.


Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics is directly involved with the two lowest frequencies of the LFI, the 30 and 44 GHz radiometers. These have 4 and 6 detectors respectively, operating at 20K (-253.15°C or -423.67°F). The resolution on the sky is 33 and 23 arc minutes, and the sensitivity 1.6 and 2.4 micro K (1s, over 12 months). The radiometers were built by a European collaboration: the cryogenic low noise amplifiers which are the heart of the radiometers were developed at Jodrell Bank, with help from the University of Birmingham and The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Once built they were integrated with the receiver backends (University of Cantabria, Santander and Barcelona), the feed horns (University of Milan, Italy), the phase switches (Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Tenerife), and waveguides (designed in Italy and built in the USA). The radiometers were assembled in Milan by the company Laben, then delivered to the European Space Agency for installation in the Planck Spacecraft.

Some members of JBCA are involved in the other focal instrument, HFI. First at Cardiff University and now at the University of Manchester, they have played a major role in the design, development and calibration of the Focal Plane Unit, in particular the cold optics, in collaboration with the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale - France, Maynooth University - Ireland and JPL/Caltech - USA.


The objective of the European Space Agency's Planck Spacecraft is to map the cosmic microwave background anisotropies as fully and accurately as possible. Planck is making very sensitive measurements of the temperature over the whole sky, at nine different frequencies between 30 and 900 GHz covered by two main instruments, the High and Low Frequency Instruments (HFI and LFI).

Planck will observe the whole sky at least twice at all nine frequencies over two separate six month periods, and after about 18 months in orbit the data will be combined into maps of the microwave sky at the various data processing centres situated around Europe. Extraction of the key cosmological parameters from the maps will be the task of the Planck Consortium members, including the Jodrell construction team and scientists, who have been working on the necessary strategies and software for several years. By 2011-2012 we should know whether our first order picture of the origin and evolution of our Universe is correct, and will no doubt have posed many more questions for post-Planck generations of spacecraft to answer.

Preparatory research for the mission includes studies of:

The space craft will be placed in orbit about the L2 Lagrangian point in the Earth-Sun system, so that the Earth, Sun and Moon will be behind the spacecraft.