Planck spacecraft switched off and sent to solar orbit


October 23, 2013

Artist's impression of Planck at L2 (Image: ESA)

Artist's impression of Planck at L2 (Image: ESA)

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On Wednesday, at 12:10:27 GMT, ESA’s Planck space telescope ended its four and a half year mission when project scientist Jan Taube sent the command telling the unmanned probe to switch itself off. Called ESA’s “time machine,” the spacecraft was sent into solar orbit to prevent it from becoming a hazard to future space missions.

Launched on May 14, 2009 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana along with ESA’s Herschel space telescope, Planck was sent to the Sun-Earth L2 point, where the gravitational forces of the Earth and Sun cancel one another out, allowing the craft to maintain it’s position. It was tasked with studying the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB); the echo of the Big Bang that kicked off the physical universe.

Built by Thales Alenia Space, Planck’s cryogenically cooled instruments were more sensitive than any previously sent up to study the CMB and allowed the telescope to produce more detailed maps in the microwave and infrared spectra at higher resolution than was previously possible. Operating at a tenth of a degree above absolute zero, the telescope allowed scientists to look back to the beginnings of the Universe to about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

CMB map created from Planck data (Image: ESA)

Planck completed both its primary and secondary missions, which ended in January when it ran out of liquid helium to cool its main detector. But it continued on using its secondary instrument until the decision was taken to end the mission. In August, Planck was sent into solar orbit and instructed to fire its engine until all its fuel was expended. On Tuesday, the command was transmitted to deactivate it.

"Planck has provided us with more insight into the evolution of the Universe than any mission has before," says Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "Planck’s picture of the CMB is the most accurate 'baby photo' of the Universe yet, but the wealth of data still being scrutinized by our cosmologists will provide us with even more details."

The video below gives an overview of Planck’s mission.

Source: ESA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

There has to be a way of recovering these billion dollar pieces of machinery. Why not just bring them towards the ISS and have some sort of re-entry vehicle for them designed?

Rocky Stefano

Lack of fuel, Rocky. The Delta-V required to transfer into the orbit as you describe is quite high. Generally, the cost of the additional modifications it would take to retrieve the mission exceed the payback for doing so. Additionally, space ages components rapidly, and it is unlikely anything on a retrieved satellite would be considered reusable.

David Leek

Having completed its mission, the equipment probably is not worth much. That is, the equipemnt was probably very spercialized for what it did. Once it had collected that data, there would not be much market for that specialized eqipment. Besides, most of the cost was probably lauching it into space. Brining it back would only add to the cost.

David Leithauser

I'm not so sure about cost for bringing it back being more than it's worth. There are surely some collectors with heavy pockets that would pay big money to own something like this?

I guess I'm not too much of an art aficionado but I would rather have a small spacecraft or portion thereof in my home as a curio than a painting.

Have you seen what some will spend their money on?

Maybe it's worth talking with Sotheby's.

Bryan Haslett

The orbit is a lot higher for this satellite in the story but in the past there has been satellite repairs - If we can now fly planes autominously guess it should be possible to have autominous space planes flying around and shuttling things back and forth - they would never actually come back but remain in orbit - but going to take someon with deep pockets to do this - but at some point we are going to need a space dock above earth to build stuff.


I'm no expert so here go my questions. It seems that a few months ago i was reading that the Cosmic Background Radiation astounded scientists by how smooth and even it is. Am I now hearing the opposite from the above video?

Regarding salvaging some of these satellites for historical, artistic or whatever, when the space shuttle was flying it came home with an empty cargo bay many times. Why couldn't missions be designed to allow a delivery vehicle to bring a used satellite back? I would put Hubble at the top of my list.


Before the loss of Columbia, the plan was to bring Hubble back to stick it in a museum. But there are no plans for more service/repair missions nor any plan to recover the telescope.

AFAIK there are currently no plans to launch another visible spectrum telescope.

Unless some private commercial space company takes on further missions to the telescope, it's useful life will end when the current reaction wheels begin to fail. Eventually it'll fall out of orbit.

Gregg Eshelman
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