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Herschel and Planck – a double whammy for ESA

There are many jobs I wouldn’t take for all the money in the world at the moment – “Gordon Brown’s therapist” springs to mind – but one position I absolutely definitely would not take would be as a flight controller at Kourou, in charge of the upcoming launch of the European Space Agency’s most ambitious astronomical missions ever – Herschel and Planck.

Why? Because on Thursday May 14th, BOTH mega-hi tech telescopes – worth almost 2 BILLION Euros – are going to be launched into space onboard the same, huge, Ariane 5 rocket. So if anything goes wrong, that’s it, bang-bang, both satellites will be lost. Now, I ask you, would you like to be one of the guys in charge of that? Would you like to be the person who gives the final “Go” call in the round-the-desks “Go/No Go” consultation? No. me neither.

So this must be a very, very tense time for everyone involved in the Herschel and Planck missions. Both telescopes – which represent the cutting edge of technology, I think it’s fair to say – are extremely important for cosmologists. Neither will send back “pretty pictures” like Hubble, because unlike that famous observatory both Herschel and Planck are going to be making observations outside of the visible part of the spectrum.


Herschel (above), with its trademark huge mirror, is an infrared and submillimetre telescope, and its mission is essentially to gather new information about how stars and galaxies form and evolve. Here’s a close-up of that mirror, which will help to give you a sense of scale for the telescope…


As for Planck (see below), the smaller of the two telescopes, its mission is to study the damous Cosmic Microwave Background” to learn more about conditions in the universe in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago. Planck will, hopefully, tell us a lot about how the universe has changed since it was born…


Right now the two telescopes are undergoing their final tests at the Kourou spaceport, in preparation for their planner May 14th launch. Their ride into space will be courtesy of one of ESA’s fleet of mighty Ariane 5 rockets…


… a true beast of a launcher. Standing 59m high (193ft) it’s as high as a space shuttle stack. The rocket has proved to be an effective and reliable workhorse for ESA, and 39 of its 43 launches have been successful, which is a pretty good rate for a launch system, so no doubt the ESA team behind this launch, and this mission, are confident…

But stiill, it’s obviously a huge risk putting two such high-profile and staggeringly expensive payloads inside and on top of one rocket, and everyone will, I’m sure, have their fingers crossed that the launch of this Ariane 5 doesn’t go the same way the rocket’s maiden flight did back in June 1996, when a fault in the rocket’s computer software resulted in this happening…


Not a good day.

So, let’s all wish ESA the best of luck with this exciting and very important double mission. More information about the telescopes can be found here.

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