2009 is an exciting year for the European space community, with some high-profile launches, an astronaut recruitment programme, new launch vehicles, and, let’s not forget, a Belgian becoming the first ever European commander of the International Space Station.
Most anticipated for astronomers worldwide, however, is the launch of two major astronomy missions, Herschel and Planck. These two space telescopes are both designed to operate at the L2 Lagrangian point – a gravitationally stable point 1.5M km from Earth – and will be launched together on board an Ariane 5 on 16 April, from Korou.
With its 3.5-m mirror, Herschel will be the largest telescope ever launched into space. Sensitive to infrared radiation, Herschel will look at cold objects in the Universe and those shrouded in dust – conditions typical of star and planet formation. Its smaller companion Planck is the first European satellite for studying the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow from the Big Bang that permeates the entire Universe. Both these missions are multi-million euro projects, led by the European Space Agency, backed by large consortia of astronomers and industrial partners from all over Europe. I know lots of people who work on Herschel or Planck and I’m really looking forward to the launch, and, I must admit, not a little bit nervous. Though satellites are launched into space on a daily basis, it’s still a tricky business and the risk of failure is very real.
A successful launch and commissioning of Herschel and Planck will mark a new mini-era in astronomy and the promise the missions carry is huge. I’ll be saying plenty more about both of them, and in the mean time, here are some links:
Planck’s Twitter feed
BBC news article on Herschel
Image credit: ESA/Guarniero