Planck, a European-US collaborative mission launched by ESA, has provided its first pictures. Planck is a followup to WMAP, and looks at the cosmic microwave background. But it has a host of other detectors and purposes, too. Stealing blatently from Wikipedia, Planck will do:

  1. High resolution detections of both the total intensity and polarization of the primordial CMB anisotropies

  2. Creation of a catalogue of galaxy clusters through the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect

  3. Observations of the gravitational lensing of the CMB, as well as the integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect

  4. Observations of bright extragalactic radio (active galactic nuclei) and infrared (dusty galaxy) sources

  5. Observations of the Milky Way, including the local interstellar medium, distributed synchrotron emission and measurements of the galactic magnetic field.

  6. Studies of the local Solar System, including planets, asteroids, comets and the zodiacal light

one of the Planck first light images

I've written of the joys of first light before, the excitement of a new telescope. We can also talk about what we'll get from Planck. Besides the above intended science, we will find stuff we didn't know we'd find.

Saying "we don't even know what things we'll find" isn't a cop-out, it's a certainty. It's how science works. If we knew what we'd find, we wouldn't have to look. Science is about exploring the unknown, testing theories, and finding serendipitous results in the meantime.

We can discuss the SWIFT mission as an example of what time yields. The news staff here already covered the amazing best UV image of M31 ever, M31 being our nearest galaxy neighbor and sibling, the Andromeda Galaxy. Swift was designed to hunt down gamma ray bursts, something it has done ferociously well-- and we still get excellent 'extra' science like this M31 map.

Mary Hrovat wrote on early SWIFT work and, more recently, the news staff here how it extends into broader knowledge of our universe, and of physics itself.

We also gain technological advancement in launching science satellites. Dual launching two 2-ton satellites out to the L2 Lagrange point is a new skill. Supercooling space hardware develops technology also useful for the defense industry and precision manufacturing.

And let's not forget what all new satellite designs achieve-- leading edge engineering in a hostile environment. After all, both the satellites surviving space, and the scientists surviving science budget cuts count as hostile.  As far as price tags, Planck cost about as much as bailing out 1/45th of one bank. Yes, Planck's $0.7 billion (mostly funded by ESA) is much less than the $45 billion per bank recently given out via a handy two-page form.  Would that science had it so easy.

Planck is part of a NASA program that is, beyond arguments of 'keeping engineers employed' and 'advancing technology', has a way cool science goal. In NASA's words:

The Physics of the Cosmos Program expands the knowledge of physics beyond General Relativity and quantum mechanics. It answers the question, "How does the Universe work?"

In attempting to understand and explain the universe, Albert Einstein devised several theories along with his theory of general relativity. Some remarkable predictions flow from these theories: the Big Bang, black holes, and existence of "dark energy." However, Einstein's theories only predict, they do not explain the phenomena. To find answers, scientists must move beyond Einstein's theory, and must employ new techniques and launch missions to observe the universe in new and advanced ways.

This is what humans do-- we explore, we push limits.  Then we take what we learned while doing this, bring it back home, and make a better life with our new tools and techniques.  Lasers give us DVDs, microsat tech gives us medical imaging, it all pays out in the end.  Physics and engineering is handy stuff, and every satellite gives us more of both.  Plus pretty pictures and knowledge of the origins of the early universe, of course.

Alex, The Daytime Astronomer, Tues&Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skyday

Read about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries!