Sophisticated spacecraft

Planck spinning in space

Planck will study the Cosmic Microwave Background by measuring its temperature all over the sky. Planck’s large telescope will collect light from the CMB and focus it onto two arrays of radio detectors, which will translate the signal into a temperature reading.

The detectors on board Planck are highly sensitive. They will look for variations in the temperature of the CMB of about a million times smaller than one degree – this is comparable to measuring from Earth the heat produced by a rabbit sitting on the Moon.

The Planck spacecraft consists of two main elements: a warm satellite bus, or service module, and a cold payload module, which includes the two scientific instruments and the telescope.

The service module is octagonal in shape. It houses the data handling systems and subsystems essential for the spacecraft to function and communicate with Earth, and the electronic and computer systems of the instruments. At the base of the service module is a flat, circular solar panel that generates power for the spacecraft and protects it from direct solar radiation.

Planck’s cooling system - cut view
Planck’s cooling system - cut view

The baffle is an important part of the payload module. It surrounds the telescope, limiting the amount of stray light incident on the reflectors. It also helps radiate excess heat into space, cooling the focal plane units of the instruments and the telescope to a stable temperature of about –223ºC (or 50 K). The baffle forms part of the passive cooling system for the satellite, which supports the active cooling system.

The solar array, located at the bottom of the service module at one end of the spacecraft, is permanently illuminated by sunlight. Three reflective thermal shields isolate the service module from the payload module at the opposite end. This prevents heat generated by the solar array and the electronic boxes inside the service module from diffusing to the payload module.

This passive cooling system brings the temperature of the telescope down to around 50 K. The temperature of the detectors is further decreased to levels as low as 0.1 K by a three-stage active refrigeration chain. The resulting difference in temperature between the warm and cold ends of the satellite is an astounding 300 K.

The coldest detectors

Planck’s cooling system (at 20 degrees Kelvin)
Planck’s cooling system (at 20 degrees Kelvin)

A key requirement is that Planck’s detectors must be cooled to temperatures close to the coldest temperature reachable in the Universe - absolute zero - which is –273.15°C, or, expressed in the scale used by scientists, zero Kelvin (0 K).

Planck’s cooling system (at 4 degrees Kelvin)
Planck’s cooling system (at 4 degrees Kelvin)

At the time of its release, only about 380 000 years after the Big Bang, what we detect as the CMB today had a temperature of some 3000 K; but now, with the expansion and cooling of the Universe, the temperature of this radiation appears to be just 2.7 K (about –270ºC).

Planck’s cooling system (at 1 degree Kelvin)
Planck’s cooling system (at 1 degree Kelvin)

The detectors on board Planck have to be very cold so that their own heat does not swamp the signal from the sky. All of them will be cooled to temperatures below –253ºC, and some of them will reach the amazingly low temperature of just one-tenth of a degree above absolute zero. These detectors will be the coldest known points in space.

Sharp vision

With its unprecedented angular resolution, Planck will provide the most accurate measurements of the CMB yet.

The angular resolution is a measure of Planck's sharpness of vision, i.e. the smallest separation between regions in the sky that the detectors are able to distinguish; the smaller the separation, the sharper (better) will be the information gathered. Planck's sharpness of vision is such that it can distinguish objects in the sky with a much higher resolution than any other space-based mission that has studied the CMB.

Planck's detectors have the ability to detect signals 10 times fainter than its most recent predecessor, NASA's WMAP, and its wavelength coverage allows it to examine wavelengths 10 times smaller. In addition, the telescope’s angular resolution is three times better. The resulting effect is that Planck will be able to extract 15 times more information from the CMB than WMAP.

With its sharp vision and high sensitivity, Planck will extract all the information that the fluctuations in the CMB hold.

Broad wavelength coverage

Telescope and focal plane unit
Telescope and focal plane unit

The Planck detectors are specifically designed to detect microwaves at nine wavelength bands from the radio to the far-infrared, in the range of a third of a millimetre to one centimetre. This includes wavelengths that have not been observed before. The wide coverage is required in order to face a key challenge of the mission: to differentiate between useful scientific data and the many other undesired signals that introduce spurious noise.

The problem is that many other objects, such as our own galaxy, emit radiation at the same wavelengths as the CMB itself. These confusing signals have to be monitored and removed from the measurements; Planck will use several of its wavelength channels to measure signals other than the CMB, thus obtaining the cleanest signal of the CMB ever.

In addition, as it is monitoring signals other than the CMB, Planck will be gathering data on celestial objects including star fields, nebulae and galaxies in the microwave range with unprecedented accuracy, providing scientists with the best astrophysical observatory ever in these wavelengths.

 

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