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Europe's Planck and Herschel spacecraft lift off

Herschel, Planck, ESA launchThe European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched two spacecraft this morning that should shed light on some of the big questions in astronomy and cosmology, from the origins of the universe to the formation of stars and planets.

ESA's Planck and Herschel lifted off on board an Ariane 5 rocket at 9:12 Eastern Daylight Time from the European Spaceport in French Guiana.

Less than 40 minutes later the two spacecraft radioed back to an ESA antenna in Australia to confirm that they had separated from the launcher as planned. (The video below shows an animation of Planck's separation.) They are on separate trajectories to loop around a point 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth, well beyond the moon. To lend a sense of scale, ESA has a video showing Herschel's planned trajectory and orbit.

Herschel will examine the dark, cool universe—proto-galaxies in the early universe, for instance, that are shrouded by dusty clouds and are difficult to see from Earth. Planck will look back even further to the cosmic microwave background, remnant radiation from a time when the universe was just 400,000 years old, or roughly 0.003 percent of its present age.

Photo of ESA's Ariane 5 launcher carrying Planck and Herschel into space: ESA/S. Corvaja; Planck video: ESA (animation by AOES Medialab)

 
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