Lift-off for Herschel and Planck
One of the most important missions in the history of European spaceflight has blasted off from French Guiana. The Herschel and Planck space telescopes were launched from the Kourou spaceport on a single Ariane rocket at a little after two o'clock today.
At more than seven metres tall, and with a main mirror that's three and a half metres across, Herschel is the biggest telescope ever launched into space.
From a position some one and a half million kilometres above the earth it will investigate how stars and galaxies form and evolve. It's three main cameras are sensitive to light at infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths, allowing it to peer through clouds of dust and gas to observe the birth processes of stars.
The Planck observatory will focus on the relic radiation of the Big Bang itself - the Cosmic Microwave Background.
To do that Planck's instruments need to operate at temperatures close to absolute zero, leading scientists working on the project to dub Planck "the coolest satellite ever launched into space".
The "two-for-one" nature of the launch hints at a cost-conscious approach by the European Space Agency. But at nearly two billion euros this is ESA's most expensive project to date, propelling the agency into the astronomical premier league alongside Nasa.
Hailing the launch ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain said: "This is the result of many years' hard work by thousands of scientists and engineers across Europe. The technology on board these satellites is unique, and the science these satellites will do is fantastic."