On March 21st the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed the latest revolutionary images of the early Universe observed with ‘Planck’. Researchers at Maynooth have helped to build the Planck satellite, a flagship space mission for ESA which has compiled the most detailed maps ever of leftover radiation from the Big Bang – called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This extremely accurate temperature map of the entire sky gives a picture of how the Universe looked just 380,000 years after the Big Bang and the pattern of temperature fluctuations that were the 'seeds' that ultimately led to the formation of present day galaxies and stars.
The PLANCK satellite was launched on May 14 May 2009 on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana along with the Herschel Space Telescope. The data gathered by the satellite revealed that the Universe is older than previously thought, with an age of 13.82 billion years, and that the composition of material is also different, with normal matter – galaxies and stars – making up just 5% of the Universe’s density and dark matter making up 26.8%, nearly a fifth more than the previous estimate. Dark energy, a mysterious force thought to be responsible for accelerating the expansion of the Universe, accounts for slightly less than previously thought, at around 68.3%.
Researchers belonging to the Terahertz Optics Group in the Experimental Physics Department led by Prof. Anthony Murphy and including Dr. Neil Trappe, Dr. Creidhe O’Sullivan and Dr. Marcin Gradziel have been key players in international consortia of scientists and engineers who have designed, built and tested the exquisitely sensitive receivers at the heart of both the Planck and Herschel satellites. In particular the Maynooth research group played a crucial role supporting the development and construction of the state-of-the-art technologies for the High Frequency Instrument on the Planck satellite. The group’s particular niche expertise is in optics design and analysis in the far infrared and terahertz bands.
The group was heavily involved in the pre-launch optical system design, verification and calibration of the PLANCK instruments and in the post launch analysis of the beam measurements, which supports the scientific analysis of the data. The research has been funded by grants from significant Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Council for Science Engineering and Technology, Science Foundation Ireland and a Prodex awards administered by the European Space Agency on behalf of Enterprise Ireland.
Over the nearly 17 years since the Maynooth University research group first got involved in PLANCK mission and other European Space Agency projects a total of 14 PhD students, 7 MSc students and 6 research fellows have supported the Maynooth effort. The group continues to play a role supporting the post launch analysis of the scientific data which Planck has produced.