Planck: First results

The Satellite now known as the Planck Surveyor was first conceived in the mid-1990s, in the wake of the results from NASA’s COBE Satellite, the first to detect primordial anisotropies in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), light from about 400,000 years after the big bang. (I am a relative latecomer to the project, having only joined in about 2000.)

After all this time, we on the team are very excited to produce our very first scientific results. These take the form of a catalog of sources detected by Planck, along with 25 papers discussing the catalog as well as the more diffuse pattern of radiation on the sky.

Planck is the very first instrument to observe the whole sky with light in nine bands with wavelengths from about 1/3 of a millimeter up to one centimeter, an unprecedented range. In fact this first release of data and papers discusses Planck as a tool for astrophysics — as a telescope observing distant galaxies and clusters of galaxies as well as our own Galaxy, the Milky Way. All of these glow in Planck’s bands (indeed they dominate over the CMB in most of them), and with our high-sensitivity all-sky maps we have the opportunity to do astronomy with Planck, the best microwave telescope ever made. Indeed, to get to this point, we actually have to separate out the CMB from the other sources of emission and, somewhat perversely, actively remove that from the data we are presenting.

Over the last year, then, we on the Planck team have written about 25 papers to support this science; a few of them are about the mission as a whole, the instruments on board Planck, and the data processing pipelines that we have written to produce our data. Then there are a few papers discussing the data we are making available, the Early Release Compact Source Catalog and the various subsets discussing separately objects within our own Milky Way Galaxy as well as more distant galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The remaining papers give our first attempts at analyzing the data and extracting the best science possible.

Most of the highlights in the current papers provide confirmation of things that astronomers have suspected, thanks to Planck’s high sensitivity and wide coverage. It has long been surmised that most stars in the Universe are formed in locations shrouded by dust, and hence not visible to optical telescopes. Rather, the birth of stars heats the dust to temperatures much lower than that of stars, but much higher than the cold dust far from star-forming regions. This warm dust radiates in Planck’s bands, seen at lower and lower frequencies for more and more distant galaxies (due to the redshift of light from these faraway objects). For the first time, Planck has observed this Cosmic Infrared Background (CIB) at frequencies that may correspond to galaxies forming when the Universe was less than 15% of its current age, less than 2 billion years after the big bang. Here is a picture of the CIB at various places around the sky, specifically chosen to be as free as possible of other sources of emission:
Cosmic Infrared Background

Another exciting result has to do with the properties of that dust in our own Milky Way Galaxies. This so-called cosmic dust is known to be made of very tiny grains, from small agglomerations of a few molecules up to those a few tens of micrometers across. Ever since the mid-1990s, there has been some evidence that this dust emits radiation at millimeter wavelengths that the simplest models could not account for. One idea, actually first proposed in the 1950s, is that some of the dust grains are oblong, and receive enough of a kick from their environment that they spin at very high rates, emitting radiation at a frequency related to that rotation. Planck’s observations seem to confirm this prediction quantitatively, seeing its effects in our galaxy. This image of the Rho Ophiuchus molecular cloud shows that the spinning dust emission at 30 GHz traces the same structures as the thermal emission at 857 GHz:
Spinning Dust

In addition, Planck has found more than twenty new clusters of galaxies, has mapped the dust in gas in the Milky Way in three dimensions, and uncovered cold gas in nearby galaxies. And this is just the beginning of what Planck is capable of. We have not yet begun to discuss the cosmological implications, nor Planck’s abilities to measure not just the intensity of light, but also its polarization.

Of course the most important thing we have learned so far is how hard it is to work in a team of 400 or so scientists, whom — myself included — like neither managing nor being managed (and are likewise not particularly skilled at either). I’ve been involved in a small way in the editing process, shepherding just a few of those 25 papers to completion, paying attention to the language and presentation as much as the science. Given the difficulties, I am relatively happy with the results — the papers can be downloaded directly from ESA, and will be available on the ArXiV on 12 January 2011, and will eventually be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. It will be very interesting to see how we manage this in two years when we may have as many as a hundred or so papers at once. Stay tuned.