Media Releases

University of Toronto astronomers among those announcing first scientific results of Planck satellite mission

January 11, 2011

Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to astronomers are in Paris this week part of an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence announc­ing the first sci­en­tif­ic results of the Plank space tele­scope mis­sion.

Launched in May 2009, the tele­scope has near­ly com­plet­ed three of its four planned sur­veys of the entire sky, pro­vid­ing astronomers a glimpse of con­di­tions near the begin­ning of the Uni­verse and pro­vid­ing data that will help answer the big ques­tions: How was the Uni­verse formed? How has it evolved to its present form? And what shape will it take in future?

“Planck has worked flaw­less­ly to give us unprece­dent­ed all-sky cov­er­age of the emis­sion by cos­mic dust, giv­ing us for the first time insight into dust evo­lu­tion in dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments from the most dif­fuse to the dense mol­e­c­u­lar regions in which new stars are form­ing,” says U of T astronomer Peter Mar­tin, one of the Planck sci­en­tists. “Because dust is the reser­voir hold­ing the essen­tial mate­ri­als from which ter­res­tri­al plan­ets and life ulti­mate­ly form, this is wel­come progress toward under­stand­ing our com­plex his­to­ry.”

The most sen­si­tive tele­scope ever designed to study the cos­mic microwave back­ground — the rem­nants of radi­a­tion from the Big Bang some 13 bil­lion years ago and the old­est source of light in the uni­verse — Planck­’s detec­tors mea­sure the tem­per­a­ture of this light, search­ing for regions that are slight­ly warmer or cold­er than the aver­age. These small fluc­tu­a­tions in tem­per­a­ture, called anisotropies, pro­vid­ed the seeds for the for­ma­tion of galax­ies that exist today.

The prob­lem is that the radi­a­tion left over from the Big Bang is dis­tort­ed by objects in the fore­ground, like galax­ies, stars, gas and dust. The Planck team has pro­duced a guide­book of 10,000 fore­ground objects that will become tar­gets for future study, and chart­ed new types of astro­phys­i­cal struc­tures:

•    189 gigan­tic clus­ters of galax­ies, includ­ing 20 that have nev­er been seen before;
•    cold dust clouds where stars are form­ing, among the cold­est ever dis­cov­ered, and the first all-sky cen­sus;
•    dark gas, a pre­vi­ous­ly unde­tect­ed type of mol­e­c­u­lar gas found cling­ing to the edges of giant mol­e­c­u­lar clouds in the Milky Way, and which may have an impact on galaxy for­ma­tion and evo­lu­tion; and,
•    microwave emis­sion from a pop­u­la­tion of tiny dust par­ti­cles, or large mol­e­cules, that spin up to ten bil­lion times per sec­ond.

The Planck sur­vey will help researchers trace the large-scale dis­tri­b­u­tion of star-form­ing galax­ies, as well as pro­vide infor­ma­tion about the still-unclear link between dark mat­ter and star-form­ing galax­ies. Some astronomers believe that dark mat­ter may pro­vide the skele­ton for galax­ies to form and evolve. The Planck cat­a­logue will also shed new light on well known — but poor­ly under­stood — objects, like com­pact clumps of cold dust that string togeth­er to form huge fil­a­ments in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. These extreme­ly cold objects may hold clues to the his­to­ry of how stars form.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to sci­en­tists have played a key role on the High Fre­quen­cy Instru­ment (HFI), an ultra-sen­si­tive instru­ment cooled to a frac­tion of a degree above absolute zero to detect minute cos­mic sig­nals. It is one of two instru­ments on board, the oth­er Low Fre­quen­cy Instru­ment (LFI) involves sci­en­tists at UBC. Both receive the radi­a­tion cap­tured by the satellite’s 1.5 metre mir­ror. Essen­tial soft­ware to ana­lyze the HFI sig­nals was devel­oped by a team at U of T led by J. Richard Bond of the Cana­di­an Insti­tute for The­o­ret­i­cal Astro­physics and Barth Net­ter­field of the Depart­ments of Astron­o­my and Astro­physics and of Physics to enable rapid ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the data as it comes from the satel­lite and its sub­se­quent analy­sis. This soft­ware has also been devel­oped for use by the LFI by the UBC team. The LFI and the HFI com­ple­ment each oth­er to ana­lyze the light gath­ered dur­ing the microwave sur­veys of the sky. These two cam­eras cov­er dif­fer­ent areas of the light spec­trum. The LFI oper­ates like a tran­sis­tor radio and the HFI con­verts the elec­tro­mag­net­ic radi­a­tion into heat for sub­se­quent analy­sis.

The Cana­di­an teams have spent more than a decade work­ing with their inter­na­tion­al col­leagues to plan for the Planck mis­sion, and are direct­ly involved in using the data to answer some of the biggest ques­tions in the Uni­verse. Twen­ty-five sci­en­tif­ic papers have been pro­duced in the first two years of oper­a­tion of the Euro­pean space obser­va­to­ry, with U of T/CITA sci­en­tists serv­ing as authors on the major­i­ty of papers.  Peter Mar­tin of CITA was cho­sen to present the overview talk in Paris on cos­mic dust in the Milky Way Galaxy to intro­duce the excit­ing Planck results on these ubiq­ui­tous tiny grains.  Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor J. Richard Bond was cho­sen to put the dis­cov­er­ies by Planck announced today on huge clus­ters of galax­ies by the scat­ter­ing of the cos­mic back­ground radi­a­tion from hot high-pres­sure gas in the clus­ters. He was also cho­sen to end the con­fer­ence with his sum­ma­ry of the sci­en­tif­ic import of the remark­able results pre­sent­ed by Planck.

“There is a gor­geous com­pos­ite image of all of the sky as it appears to Planck, show­ing the struc­ture in the first light of the Uni­verse when it was released some 380000 years after the Big Bang,” says Bond.  But there is also a set of veils in front hid­ing this pris­tine snap­shot of the ear­li­est moments we as humans can see. The veils are com­posed of emis­sions from our own Milky Way, and emis­sions from galax­ies burst­ing in their birth with copi­ous pro­duc­tion of mas­sive stars, radio waves pow­ered by the huge grav­i­ta­tion­al ener­gy of gigan­tic black holes in the cen­tres of galax­ies, and the heat­ing of the first light by the largest enti­ties in the Uni­verse, the great clus­ters of galax­ies and the super­clus­ters they are invari­ably housed in.”

“We cel­e­brate with our fel­low Planck­ians that we have come so far since launch with this first release detail­ing the intri­cate nature of the veils. But it is the great cos­mic mys­ter­ies of the what, where and why of the first moments of the Uni­verse to behold once the veils are lift­ed that holds the ulti­mate fas­ci­na­tion for me as a cos­mol­o­gist and a Planck­ian. Stay tuned for that.”

Oth­er U of T sci­en­tists in the Planck mis­sion include:  Marc Antoine Miville Desch­enes, Mike Nol­ta and Jens Chlu­ba of CITA, who are also in Paris for the Planck unveil­ing, and Francine Mar­leau of Astron­o­my and Astro­physics. The Planck Space Tele­scope mis­sion is led by the Euro­pean Space Agency.  The Cana­di­an Space Agency funds the two Cana­di­an research teams who are part of the Planck sci­ence col­lab­o­ra­tion, and who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the devel­op­ment of both of Planck’s LFI and HFI sci­ence instru­ments. The Planck Space Tele­scope will con­tin­ue to sur­vey the Uni­verse, with its next data release sched­uled for Jan­u­ary 2013.

For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

J. Richard Bond

Peter Mar­tin