Bad Astronomy

Launch dates

A lot of space missions are poised for launch right now! NASA has the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which will blast off no earlier than June 2, and the Hubble servicing mission for the Space Shuttle Atlantis is now scheduled for launch on May 11. I’ll have lots more about that soon.

Herschel and Planck
Herschel and Planck
The European Space Agency isn’t exactly taking it easy, either: Herschel and Planck are two astronomy missions that will launch on a single Ariane 5 rocket on May 14th.

Herschel is a massive infrared telescopic observatory with a 3.5 meter mirror, by far the largest infrared observatory ever put in space. It will look at far-infrared light, from 55 to 672 microns (our eyes are sensitive to light out to roughly 0.7 microns, so this is way out in the IR). For comparison, the awesome Spitzer telescope has a mirror 0.85 meters across, so Herschel will return incredible imagery of the sky. I can’t wait to see what it shows us!

Planck will map the entire sky at microwave frequencies, looking at the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. The NASA satellite WMAP did this a few years back and answered many questions about the physics of the early Universe, but as we have to come to expect in science, any new observations will also raise even more questions. Planck will have ten times the resolution that WMAP did, so it will see smaller features on the sky. It’s also more sensitive than WMAP was, so it will see fainter features as well. This means it may answer a lot of those questions WMAP raised.

Now get this: the Big Bang model is the best one we have to explain the origin of the Universe. But it does not tell us about how that moment occurred. Did the Universe get its start from a singular event, a quantum fluctuation in some larger metaverse? Are we the last in a series of past Big Bangs and recollapses (the last because we’re pretty sure the cosmic expansion will go on forever this time)? Are we here because two high-dimensional membranes collided?

WMAP map of the microwave sky
These questions stretch our brains to the breaking point… but the thing is, there is science here! These different ideas predict different structures in the background glow leftover from the Big Bang. WMAP saw many cooler and warmer spots on the sky in that microwave glow, equal numbers of them. But some theories say we should see just a hair more cold spots. WMAP did a fine job observing the sky, but it simply lacked the resolution to be able to see any asymmetries in the hot and cold spot numbers.

Planck may very well have the resolution needed to see that. Do you understand the implications? We may be on the verge of determining if the origin of the Universe was a singular event, or if it was due to some other mechanism.

We’re on the edge of “holy crap!” territory with this. We have progressed from last century’s having no clue about how the cosmos got its start, to now possibly being able to get a handle on what happened before the Big Bang.

That’s why I love science! Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say: baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.