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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Good day in Space Science

Not only is the Hubble servicing mission under way (which should extend the life of the telescope another five years and hopefully more), but down in French Guiana an Ariane 5 successfully launched a double science payload: the Herschel infra-red observatory (which has a telescope bigger than the Hubble's) to study star and galaxy formation, and the Planck cosmology mission, which will map the Cosmic Microwave Background in the best detail ever. The CMB is radiation left over from about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the Universe cooled enough for matter and light to become separate things. Knowing it in detail will help us figure out how the Universe evolved from its origins to the present day. Both spacecraft are functioning normally and are on their way to Earth's L2 point, a region of gravitional stability about 1.6 million km away. It's a popular location for astronomy missions as it requires very little station-keeping to keep spacecrafts there, it's far enough away from Earth that the heat our planet puts out doesn't mess with the instruments, and it's close enough so you don't need a massive antenna on the spacecraft to maintain communications, especially when you expect to get a lot of data back.

When I first heard that both Herschel and Planck were going up on the same rocket, I thought that was really putting all your eggs in one basket, although the Ariane 5 has an excellent record with no failures since 2002. I'll bet a lot of people are breathing a lot easier today.