Planck and Being Human

On Saturday 19th October the instruments and cooling systems on the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft were switched off, marking the end of the scientific part of the Planck mission, after about four years of mapping the cosmic microwave background.  Later, a piece of software was uploaded that would prevent  the spacecraft systems being  accidentally switched on again after being switched off and the transmitter from causing interference with any future probes.  Planck is already “parked” indefinitely in a what is called a “disposal” orbit, far from the Earth-Moon system, having been nudged off its perch at the 2nd Lagrangian Point (L2) in August by a complicated series of manoeuvres. On October 21st the spacecraft’s thrusters were fired to burn up the last of its fuel, an important aspect of rendering the spacecraft inert, as required by ESA’s space debris mitigation guidelines.

Planck

These preliminaries having been completed, today, at 12.00 GMT,  a final instruction will be transmitted to the spacecraft  to close it down permanently; thereafter Planck will circle the Sun as a silent memorial to the stunning success it achieved when active. I’m sure all those who worked on the Planck mission will pause as the final shutdown command is given and ponder the lonely future  of the spacecraft that had supplied so much interesting data.

But although this will be the end of the Planck mission, it is by no means the end of the Planck Era. Vast amounts of data still need to be fully analysed and key science results are still in the pipeline,  relating in particular to the polarization of the microwave background radiation. Moreover, the numerous maps, catalogues and other data products will be a priceless legacy to this generation, and no doubt many future generations, of scientists.

The fate of Planck illustrates two contrasting aspects of the human experience. On the one hand, there’s the fragility of our existence in a cosmos too vast for us to comprehend. Like the defunct spacecraft, our Earth too circles this little Sun of ours in a precarious orbit while the rest of the Universe – with its countless billion upon billion of other suns – carries on, oblivious to our very existence. Planck makes us painfully aware of our own insignificance.

But on the other hand there’s the sense of fulfillment, and even of joy, at finding things out. We may have puny monkey brains and many things are likely to remain forever beyond our mental grasp, but trying to figure things out is one of the things that defines us as human.  Experiments like Planck (and, for that matter, the Large Hadron Collider) are not the wasteful extravagance some people claim them to be. We need them not just for the sake of science, but to remind us of our common humanity.

UPDATE: And now, from ESA, confirmation that Planck has received its last command. Goodbye, and enjoy your retirement!

9 Responses to “Planck and Being Human”

  1. Reblogged this on thecuriousastronomer and commented:
    Excellent blog by Peter Coles

  2. To sum up your last two paragraphs: We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

    • telescoper Says:

      Here is Steven Weinberg on the same theme:

      If there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that—in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

      • David Deutsch, in a more humorous vein:

        Depressed by the Size of the Universe? Bah, Humbug!

        Some people get depressed when they find out how huge the universe is. They feel tiny and insignificant and think that nothing matters in this world.

        That makes no more sense than getting depressed when you find out that cows are bigger than you. What is the big deal about bigness? A cow is much bigger than you, but it is a ridiculous animal and you are a valuable person. You know it’s a cow. It doesn’t know anything. it just stands there eating grass (grass!) and mooing. And if it were bigger, that would only make it more ridiculous.

        I think that is a complete refutation of the idea that the size of the universe makes us insignificant, or is depressing any other way.

      • We may not be the stars in the drama, but at least can be the critics. The stage is irrelevant without an audience.

  3. Read balloon inside balloon theory of matter and antimatter universe on opposite entropy path producing dark energy at common boundary by annihilation and injected into both the universes for all laws etc by its swirling and whirling along with galaxies etc in galactic rotation and non isotropic field density focusing to form dark matter etc . We are in rebounce ,recyclic universe in the back drop of infinite mega universe …………….

  4. “Later, a piece of software was uploaded that would prevent the spacecraft systems being accidentally switched on again”

    was it Windows 7?

  5. Nicholas Cross Says:

    As Planck is moved out of L2, Gaia is being readied for launch. It is a little sad to see Planck come to an end, but since this was expected, rather than a failure, it is nice to see it complete its mission successfully. I hope Gaia is successful too.

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