A European space telescope has been launched on a million-mile journey to map the dark universe.
The Euclid space telescope, named after the ancient Greek mathematician, will spend six years venturing through space, observing billions of galaxies as it does so.
It was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 4.12pm UK time on Saturday, and should take a month to reach its destination – an area in space known as the second Lagrange point.
This is a stable location for the spacecraft as the gravitational forces of the Earth and the sun are roughly equal.
The UK has contributed £37m towards the £850m mission, with scientists playing key roles in designing and building the two-tonne probe and leading on one of the two scientific instruments on board – a visible imager (VIS) that will become one of the largest cameras ever sent into space.
The other instrument is a near infrared spectrometer and photometer, developed in France.
Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Watching the launch of Euclid, I feel inspired by the years of hard work from thousands of people that go into space science missions, and the fundamental importance of discovery – how we set out to understand and explore the universe.”
Scientists are hoping the mission will shed light on two of the universe’s greatest mysteries: dark energy, which is the name given to the mysterious force causing the rate of expansion of our universe to accelerate over time, and dark matter – particles that do not absorb, reflect or emit light.
According to NASA, roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy, while dark matter makes up about 27%. “The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe.”
Euclid’s mission aims to scrutinise the dark universe to better understand why it is rapidly expanding.
It will make use of a cosmic phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, where matter acts like a magnifying glass, bending and distorting light from galaxies and clusters behind it, to capture high-quality images.
European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher said of Euclid’s successful take-off: “I can tell you the mood is amazing, we have a mission…
“It’s such a happy moment to see this mission now flying to its destination and then of course taking all these measurements of dark energy and dark matter which fascinate us, where we have so many questions that are being answered by this data.”
More than 2,000 scientists across Europe have been involved in the mission, from its design to its construction and analysis.