Planck mission releases first data

The European Space Agency has released the fist results from its Planck mission, focusing on the coldest objects in the universe.

While the first full-sky Planck image was published in July last year, today sees the release of the first scientific results – which include an explanation for the mysterious glow from the denser regions of the galaxy, known as anomalous microwave emission.

ESA’s published an Early Rlease Compact Source Catalogue, drawn from Planck’s continuing survey of the entire sky at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. It opens up data on thousands of very cold, individual sources to thescientific community.

“This is a great moment for Planck. Until now, everything has been about collecting data and showing off their potential. Now, at last, we can begin the discoveries,” says Jan Tauber, ESA project scientist for Planck.

Planck has found evidence for an otherwise invisible population of galaxies shrouded in dust billions of years in the past, which formed stars at rates some 10–1000 times higher than we see in our own galaxy today.

It’s also shown new details of distant galaxy clusters, identifying 189 so far. These include 20 previously unknown clusters that are being confirmed by ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory.

And there’s finally an explanation for the anomalous microwave emission that gets in the way of observations. It’s coming from dust grains set spinning at several tens of billion times a second by collisions with either fast-moving atoms or packets of ultraviolet light.

“Today’s results are the tip of the scientific iceberg. Planck is exceeding expectations thanks to the dedication of everyone involved in the project,” says David Southwood, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“However, beyond those announced today, this catalogue contains the raw material for many more discoveries. Even then, we haven’t got to the real treasure yet, the cosmic microwave background itself.”

In fact, Planck’s next data release is scheduled for January 2013, and is expected to reveal the cosmic microwave background in unprecedented detail –  “the opening act of the cosmic drama, a picture of the beginning of everything”, says ESA.