Twin European telescopes launched to study birth of the universe

European Space Agency looking to unravel mysteries behind the Big Bang theory

Two European Space Agency spacecraft blasted off this week on a mission to decipher the mysteries behind the creation of the universe.

The two spacecraft -- an infrared space telescope named Herschel and a cosmic background mapper dubbed Planck -- will focus on the darkest, coldest and oldest parts of the universe to study dark matter, and to learn more about the birth of stars and galaxies. Both crafts are designed to help scientists unravel the mysteries of the theoretical Big Bang by peering back into the earliest moments of the universe.

"Herschel and Planck will enable us to go very far back in time, to the origins of our universe, and it is only by better understanding our universe's overall past that we can help to better define the future of our planet, the Earth, not as a self-standing celestial body but as an integral part of the whole system," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the European Space Agency's director general. "Herschel and Planck are the most complex science satellites ever built in Europe."

The pair of satellites lifted off together Thursday aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from the space agency's Spaceport in French Guiana. Both crafts separated from the rocket about 10 minutes after the launch. Both sent their first radio transmissions back to Earth less than 40 minutes after launch. The signals were received by the European Space Agency's 35-m deep-space antenna at New Norcia, Australia.

The satellite launch came just a few days after NASA launched the space shuttle Atlantis Monday afternoon. The Atlantis astronauts are on an 11-day mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Installing a new backup computer, gyroscopes, batteries and a wide-field camera, the astronauts are not only giving the Hubble extra life but are making it more powerful than ever.

And NASA had some recent luck with one of its own galaxy-investigating satellites.

NASA announced late last month that using one of its satellites, astronomers have gotten a glimpse of the oldest object in the universe that humans have ever seen. The Swift satellite and a global team of astronomers detected a 10-second gamma ray burst from a star that died when the universe was just a baby. The burst, described as the "most distant cosmic explosion ever seen," happened when the universe was only 630 million years old. Scientists estimate that the universe is now about 13.73 billion years old.

The European satellites have their own missions, though.

Herschel, which carries the largest mirror ever launched into space, is designed to observe a mostly uncharted part of the electromagnetic spectrum to gain more information about the birth of stars and galaxies, along with dust clouds and planet-forming discs around stars, according to the European Space Agency. Herschel will also be looking for water, one of the key elements of life, in remote parts of the universe.

And Planck was built to map tiny irregularities in fossil radiation left over from the very first light emitted shortly after the Big Bang. Planck will be focused on studying dark matter and dark energy, which is believed to drive the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Both spacecraft are headed to an area of space called L2, which is about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. They are on two separate elongated orbits and are expected to begin making scientific observations in about two months.

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