Over one million kilometers away from Earth, a lone satellite orbits near the second Lagrangian point, scanning the sky for the fallout left behind from the Big Bang.
The satellite is named Planck, and since its launch in May of 2009, it has completed two full six-month cycles around the sun and is nearing the completion of its third. The first early set of data available to the public was released on Jan. 11, spurring the creation of 25 papers based on the information collected by the satellite.
Planck contains nine sensors that operate at a variety of frequencies, ranging from 27 to 77 GHz for the low frequencies detectors and 84 to 100 GHz for the high frequency detectors.
UCSB holds significant importance in the project. Physics professors Philip Lubin and Peter Meinhold, as well as postdoctoral fellow Andrea Zonca, are part of the Planck team. According to Meinhold, UCSB has been important to the development of the low-frequency instruments for Planck.
“Lubin and I are experimental types,” Meinhold said. “We built prototypes [for the project]. UCSB has had a big role in the low-frequency instruments.”
While the spectrum the satellite can detect is quite wide, one of the main interests of the project is the analysis of light that was first able to travel throughout the universe freely. The photons left over from the Big Bang are known as the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB. According to Meinhold, the photons are within the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum due to the expansion of the universe.
“There are a huge number of background radiation photons. The universe has expanded by about a factor of one thousands [since the Big Bang], the radiation was in the ultraviolet when it was emitted, and has been ‘stretched’ (or redshifted) to the microwave region by the expansion of the universe. The way we determine if the radiation we are observing is background radiation is to look at its spectrum, which is characteristic of a black body radiating at 2.7 K.”
Lubin said in press release that studying the radiation could lead to a better understanding of the origin of the universe and what caused its outward expansion — and perhaps give insight into its future.
“Encoded in the Planck maps is an enormous amount of information, including the birth of our universe and our ultimate fate,” Lubin said. “There is an incredible richness in this data that will help shed light not only on the birth and death of our universe, but on the growth of structure that forms stars and galaxies and that subsequently literally allows life to exist.”
While Planck is a European Space Agency mission, multitudes of researchers and engineers work in collaboration with the project. NASA is also heavily involved in the project, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology provided the team with equipment.
Jatila van der Veen, education and public outreach coordinator for the Planck mission, has directed the construction of a 3D flight simulator for the planetarium of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History that is expected to be ready for the public some time this year.
While the satellite has collected a large amount of data, it will take quite a while for the data to be fully analyzed. According to Meinhold, the data is plentiful and will be of interest to scientists for quite some time.
“There’s a lot of science there,” Meinhold said. “It’s a big deal for Planck and people interested in a range of astrophysics topics impacted by this very sensitive survey over the whole sky at so many different wavelengths. There are currently 25 papers associated with Planck about astronomy and astrophysics … it is a very rich data set, a large part of it is galactic astrophysics, emission of charged particles in our galaxy, star-forming regions, distant clusters of galaxies … there will be a lot of intense discussion and work on all these topics in the coming months and years.”