24 June 1999

Edited by Emma Sanders

Planck and FIRST given go-ahead

The planning of two major astrophysics missions has been approved by ESA’s scientific policy committee. The satellites Planck and FIRST will be launched together in 2007.

Planck is a cosmology mission that is designed to test models of the origin and evolution of the early universe by studying the cosmic microwave background radiation.

This radiation was released around 300 000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe had cooled sufficiently for atoms to remain bound together. Originally at a temperature of some 3000 K, it has now cooled to microwave radiation at a mere 3 degrees above absolute zero.

Studying small variations in this background radiation shows how matter was clumped together in the very early universe, revealing the “seeds” of future galaxies. Planck’s angular resolution will be two orders of magnitude better than that of NASA’s 1990 COBE satellite and its sensitivity will be improved by an order of magnitude.

FIRST (the Far InfraRed and Submillimetre Telescope) will look for planetary systems and study the evolution of galaxies in the early universe. The satellite’s name is appropriate because the instrument will be able to observe certain wavelengths for the first time and will be more powerful than any of its predecessors.

To avoid background noise caused by emission from the instruments, FIRST will be cooled to 2 degrees above absolute zero by liquid helium. The telescope is the successor to ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory (ISO).

For more information on ESA’s physics missions, see “Fundamental physics in space” by Maurice Jacob, chairman of ESA’s Fundamental Physics Advisory Group.

Diamonds in space?

Results from the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), after three years of data collection, reveal what appear to be diamonds in space.

The analysis of infrared emission from dust surrounding a dying star shows the presence of a carbon compound resembling diamond or buckyballs ­ football-shaped carbon molecules. Neither has been detected before in space, though their presence was predicted.

The feature originates from a complex carbon-based organic molecule (in gaseous or solid form). This shows that complex organic forms can be made by stars, over short periods (probably a few thousand years). Understanding their chemistry will help our understanding of the origin of life.

The astronomers say that industry may benefit from their discovery. If diamonds are indeed formed in the dust surrounding stars, at relatively low temperatures and pressures, new production methods could be developed.

ISO finished collecting data last year.

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