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1/12/2011
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Space Mission Sheds Light On Universe's Origins

The European Space Agency's Planck mission has revealed never-seen data and images of cosmic objects, said NASA, which backs the project.

Planck Mission's Image Of the Cosmos
(click image for larger view)
Planck Mission's Image Of the Cosmos
A NASA-supported project has released new images of the cosmos by detecting light from just a few hundred thousand years after the dawn of the universe.

The European Space Agency's Planck mission, to which NASA is a significant contributor, set out in May 2009 to survey the whole sky at least four times by measuring radiation left over from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

The mission this week released photos and data from its initial maps, showing never-before seen formations of stars and some of the largest clusters of galaxies every observed, according to NASA.

When Planck releases a more complete portfolio of its work in another two years or so, it should give researchers a significant amount of information about how the universe formed as well as its core fabric and future fate.

The Planck spacecraft is equipped with detectors that observe the sky at nine wavelengths of light that range from infrared to radio waves. The catalog of data released this week -- representing about 1-1/2 sky scans -- show what lies between the craft and the cosmic microwave background, according to NASA.

Some of the objects observed by Planck so far include about 10,000 "cold cores," which are the earliest formations of stars. Cold cores are some of the coldest places in the universe, with temperatures as low as seven degrees above absolute zero, or minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit.

The images revealed also show some of the most massive clusters of galaxies observed so far by researchers, including several ones never-before seen, according to NASA. Galaxies in the universe are grouped together in these larger clusters; scientists study these clusters, as well as dark matter and dark energy (the substances that make up most of the universe), to find out more about galaxies' evolution.

Initial Planck work also shows the universe's other temperature extreme, in the form of pools of hot gas that course through about 14,000 smaller galaxy clusters, as well as provides some of the most comprehensive data so far on light from stars as they evolved in the early universe, which makes up the cosmic infrared background.

NASA's role in the Planck mission is managed within the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where Charles Lawrence serves as U.S. project scientist for Planck.

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