The Planck telescope team has released its first full-sky picture – the clearest yet taken, showing the glow of the first light in the universe.
Pieced together over the last six months, the microwave images show the plane of our galaxy, the Milky Way, as a glowing band across the middle.
The red and yellow mottling in the high-latitude regions of the map shows the subtle temperature variations that derive from the irregular distribution of matter in the early Universe, 380 million years ago – the focus of Planck’s mission.
To the right of the main image, below the plane of the Milky Way, is a large cloud of gas in our galaxy. The arc of light surrounding it is Barnard’s Loop – the expanding bubble of an exploded star.
The €600 million telescope reveals other galaxies too. The great spiral galaxy of Andromeda, 2.2 million light-years from Earth, shows up as a sliver of microwave light, released by the coldest dust in its giant body.
Other, more distant, galaxies with supermassive black holes appear as single points of microwaves dotting the image.
Learning more about the early Universe will requre the removal of these elements with sophisticated image processing software.
This will give scientists a clearer focus on the primordial microwaves – the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation – represented by the red and yellow portions of the image. ESA hopes to use this data to establish the age of the universe and its composition more precisely than ever before.
The Planck telescope was launched in May last year. The new image is derived from data collected between August 2009 and June 2010.