A big day for science today, as at last we’ll find out some of the first cosmology results from the Planck telescope. Planck was launched together with the Herschel Space Telescope back in 2009, to perform an all-sky survey at microwave wavelengths. The survey will produce – or rather, has now produced – the most detailed and sensitive map of the Cosmic Microwave Background to date.
The CMB is essentially flat and constant all over the sky, but on closer (much closer) inspection, small fluctuations become visible. These tiny fluctuations, at the level of 1 part in 100,000 or so, are thought to be the precursors to the large scale structures we see today in the Universe – from the largest Galaxy clusters to individual stars.
Looking for and studying signals this faint is very involved and challenging work – a lot of foreground signal originating in our own Galaxy or those in the vast Universe around us have to be accounted for and removed. These “noise” was released to the community some time ago, so the rest of us could play around with the data for our menial star formation or galaxy clustering research. The Planck consortium have chosen not to release the real goodies, the cosmological results, until they felt confident about the results – which is apparently today. The level of “lockdown” and secrecy surrounding these results is quite unprecedented in astronomy as far as I know, and I’ve talked with many people who don’t agree with their chosen policy. “Open science” it definitely isn’t – but if anything, it’s a good way to ensure that your results will make a big splash on their release. However you feel about the road the mission leaders chose, these scientists deserve their moment in the spotlight. I look forward to seeing the exciting new results!