Mission to find universe's secrets

Chief of mission talks to Al Jazeera about the launch of Herschel and Planck space probes.


    Herschel, a model of which is pictured, will look for the early prerequisites for life [EPA]

    The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched two space probes - Herschel and Planck - which they hope will help to unlock the secret of the Big Bang and fundamentally change the way we think about our universe and origins.

    Al Jazeera spoke to Professor David Southwood, the chief of the mission and ESA's director of science and robotic exploration, about the launch of the observatories and their use of revolutionary technology.

    Al Jazeera: It has taken ten years and around $2.7bn to fund. Is this project good value for money?

    Professor David Southwood: That is about $0.60 per person in Europe per year. Frankly we could easily spend more and I think we should, a nation that is not looking outwards - and this is the ultimate distant frontier - is not stimulating its creativity.

    Humans are galvanised by seeking new and better knowledge. I think we are part of that process in the present society.

    Astronomers are hoping that the launch of these two satellites will answer some of the biggest questions in Science. What are these big questions and how will the satellites answer them?

    Herschel and Planck answers questions absolutely fundamental to our understanding about how the universe evolved from its beginning, the Big Bang, over 14 billion years ago.

    Initially the universe was so dense it was opaque to light. Planck looks at the first "free" light as the universe became transparent.

    It has come from a time about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. As the universe has expanded so the wavelength of the light has grown.

    It began with wavelengths shorter than our eyes can see but long ago passed through the visible and its wavelengths are now in the microwave/radio wavelength range. 

    The microwave signals are identical in all directions at first glance but with very sensitive detectors one finds small variations (at one part in one million) as one looks in different directions in the sky.

    These signals are the primordial seeds of the galaxies, stars and even planets we know today.

    Planck will measure and record the signals at an unprecedented accuracy, allowing scientists to "decode" the first stages of the universe's evolution.

    Herschel will look at the next stages, the creation of stars and galaxies, as well as the formation of planets.

    To do this it must work at shorter wavelengths than Planck, in the infra-red and sub-millimetre range.

    It is also equipped to measure sensitively wavelengths of light and in these ranges, molecules like water, C02 and numerous other combinations of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen which emit light at wavelengths characteristic of the molecule itself.

    Herschel thus can look for the early prerequisites for life and contribute thus to astrochemistry and even astrobiology.

    The cooling of the detectors as well as the large size of the mirrors in the telescopes are the secret to the unprecedented nature of the measurements to be made.

    The detectors in Herschel are cooled to 0.3 Kelvin (0.3 degrees above absolute zero. Kelvin is a scientific unit to measure incredibly cold temperatures).

    The coldest part of Planck is even colder 0.1 Kelvin! At this temperature it might be argued to be the coolest place in the entire universe!

    What's your biggest hope for the mission and what are your biggest fears?

    I hope for a big categorical breakthrough in the way we have to think about the universe and where we come from - rather than just more and more new knowledge.

    Such game changes are almost unheralded, but we live in hope as we explore.

    My worst fear is a problem in launch or in the switch on of the spacecraft.

    We have tried to preclude all possible glitches - but we remain human and our capacities are limited. Unlike Hubble, one cannot go up to fix things so far from Earth.

    How will it change the way we think about universe and do you think what we learn could have any affect down here on planet earth?

    Yes, it could, especially if we discover things we had not foreseen.

    Culturally, this sort of work does affect quite profoundly the way we think on Earth - think how relativity, the expansion of the universe and the quantum world affected the art, culture and philosophy of the 20th century.

    The discovery of the Big Bang changed many people's feelings about the world they live in.

    However the technologies we exploit and improve provide more direct day-to-day changes in our life.

    Herschel is named after the astronomer who discovered infrared light - think of life today without infrared devices.

    The technology is the same as is used for monitoring the Earth's atmosphere, something most definitely needed for safeguarding the Earth's long term habitability.

    Understanding where the Earth came from and where it might evolve is also part of that.

    What other exciting projects have ESA in the pipeline?

    Next to follow Herschel and Planck are 'Lisa Pathfinder' and 'Gaia'.
    Lisa Pathfinder is an experiment to test a fundamental aspect of Einstein's General Relativity - that freefalling masses follow curves called geodesics in space-time.

    But as its name suggests, it is really a pathfinder for something grander - a gravitational wave observatory - to start a new kind of astronomy, a new way to look at our universe.

    Gaia is something a bit "closer to home". It is to measure and follow one billion stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. 

    It will allow us to better understand the "clockwork" that makes the galaxy "tick". We will map not just the stars that we see but also the dark matter that we know is there. 

    We will also detect large numbers of extrasolar planets is these searchs, as well as many small bodies undiscovered as yet in our own solar system.

    After these comes the James Webb telescope to replace Hubble where although the USA provides the lion's share, we Europeans will launch it and we are leading the building of two [out of the three instruments] to make the critical measurements in the focal plane.

    Countries across Europe have all contributed to this project. How difficult is it co-ordinating the different countries that make up ESA? How do countries overcome national self-interest and work together?

    Astronomy is a great means of unifying effort.  One of the most wonderful personal satisfactions of working in such a global endeavour is the cultural mix of the team. Different backgrounds, education and ways of thinking all directed to the grand goal. 

    Partly it is the altruistic reason we all feel of wanting to explore the unknown, to better understand our universe. 

    But it is also sometimes driven by necessity.

    None of us could quite do these grand things on our own and so there is a need to all pull in the same direction and, for those who can, to deliver what they are good at.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    All Hail The Algorithm

    All Hail The Algorithm

    A five-part series exploring the impact of algorithms on our everyday lives.

    The priceless racism of the Duke of Edinburgh

    The priceless racism of the Duke of Edinburgh

    Prince Philip has done the world an extraordinary service by exposing the racist hypocrisy of "Western civilisation".

    China will determine the future of Venezuela

    China will determine the future of Venezuela

    There are a number of reasons why Beijing continues to back Maduro's government despite suffering financial losses.