When Thomas Passvogel applied for a job at the European Space Agency in 1996 he did so for one reason. He had his sights set on the role of Programme Manager for the launch of a satellite called Herschel. Four years later his dream was realised, but before long he found himself co-ordinating the launch of two satellites, as a second satellite, Planck, joined the line-up.
Herschel and Planck have been hailed as two of the most sophisticated astronomical spacecraft ever built, and the project itself is an impressive example of worldwide teamwork between scientists and technicians. Although the two satellites are going to the same region of space, they are there to observe very different things.
Herschel is looking for clues as to how stars and galaxies are formed. The problem is that much of this process occurs in the heart of vast dust clouds, so is difficult to see. This is where Herschel’s huge mirror comes in. It is the largest mirror ever to be launched into space, and allows Herschel to detect light at the far infrared. This type of light is able to penetrate through the clouds and will hopefully produce a unique insight into what happens in these areas of deep space.
The Planck satellite will look at echoes of the Big Bang itself. Background radiation still lingers from the Big Bang moment, and is subject to temperature changes. Planck will monitor these changes, to hopefully give clues as to the universe’s origin, evolution and future.
Charles Lawrence from NASA describes the project as an “outstanding example of international collaboration… despite the issues of working together across different time zones.” Dr Passvogel admits it wasn’t easy to co-ordinate teams from around the world. “In theory,” he said, “all the pieces would arrive from all the different labs on the correct day, and would be assembled together. However in practice, there was much more to it.”
The only real hiccup in the project was a delay in the launch. In March, the European Space Agency revealed the launch was being postponed by at least a couple of weeks. Although this announcement came close to the original launch date, Dr Passvogel explained that this was the best scenario as “the time allowed us to be better prepared for the launch which went like clockwork.”
The two satellites were finally launched into space on May 6th, and nobody was more excited than Dr Passvogel. He described the feeling as “fantastic but emotional, like when your kids leave home. You’re happy for them because they’re living on their own; however it’s still emotional to let them go.”
It is clear when talking to both Dr Passvogel and Dr Lawrence that they are very proud of this project, and indeed passionate about their fields. “I can’t imagine doing anything else that I enjoy as much,” says Dr Lawrence, whilst Dr Passvogel describes the launch as “the most exciting moment of my academic career.”