The European Space Agency will be taking astrophysics to another level by launching the largest and most powerful telescopes, the Herschel and Planck into space, to map the universe and find out about the aftermath of the Big Bang.
Both the Herschel and Planck telescopes costing approximately €2 billion to build, will blast off into space on the European Ariane-5 rocket on 14 May from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
ESA has started fuelling the two satellites and filling of the Herschel cryostat with helium.
The Herschel-Planck combination will measure approximately 11m in height and 4.5m in width, with a weight of about 5.7 tonnes. They will separate soon after launch and head into different orbits. The two spacecraft will be operated independently.
During the Launch and Early Operations Phase (LEOP) the satellites will be monitored 22 hours a day using ESA's Deep Space Stations at New Norcia, Australia (primary ground station), Cebreros, Spain, Perth, Australia and Kourou, French Guiana.
With contributions coming from 12 countries and having taken 10 years of planning and development, the 7.5m Herschel telescope is named after William Herschel, the astronomer who discovered Uranus while the Planck telescope is named after the German Nobel laureate Max Planck, considered as the father of quantum mechanics.
Herschel will carry the largest, most powerful infrared telescope ever flown in space. With its 3.5-m primary mirror, it is four times bigger than any previous infrared space telescope and almost one and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. (See: Hubble Space telescope reactivated - repair work not earlier than May 2009)
Its mission is to study the origin and evolution of stars and galaxies and it will help understand how the Universe came to be what it is today. (Also see: NASA plans to study the galaxy through giant telescopes on the moon) </aero/space/spacemissions/20080607_galaxy.html>
Its main goal is the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the relic radiation from the Big Bang, where it will measure tiny fluctuations in the CMB with unprecedented accuracy, providing the sharpest picture ever of the young Universe when it was only 380 000 years old and zero-in on theories that describe its birth and evolution.
Herschel will also bridge the gap between the wavelengths seen by previous infrared satellites and those studied by radio telescopes on ground. In so doing, it will discover a large number of unknown objects both within and without our Galaxy.
With it's highest-ever resolution in the far infrared, Herschel will be able to see detail never seen before of the solar system objects such as asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and comets and since comets are the best-preserved fossils of the early Solar System, it may hold clues to the raw ingredients that formed the planets, including Earth.
It will cover unexploited infrared wavelengths allowing it to study the earliest stages in the life of a star that have not been observed by other telescopes, revealing the youngest stars in our Galaxy for the first time.
The Herschel telescope primary mirror, the largest ever to be launched in space, is a novel and advanced concept using 12 silicon carbide petals brazed together into a single piece, it is one of the major technological highlights of the mission.
The Planck will carry a 1.9x1.5-m telescope, with an effective aperture of 1.5 m. It will focus radiation from the sky onto two arrays of sensitive radio detectors, those of the Low Frequency Instrument and those of the High Frequency Instrument.
Planck's instrument detectors are so sensitive that temperature variations of a few millionths of a degree will be distinguishable. This unrivalled sensitivity together with the large and smooth surface of its telescope and its unprecedented wavelength coverage make Planck the most sophisticated 'time machine' ever.
The European Space Agency is headquartered in Paris-France and has Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK as its members.
Also see: NASA puts Kepler space telescope in orbit / NASA's Kepler to launch tomorrow in search for earth's twin