Results of four years of observations made by the Planck space telescope provide the most precise confirmation so far of the Standard Model of cosmology, and also place new constraints on the properties of potential dark-matter candidates. That is the conclusion of astronomers working on the €700m mission of the European Space Agency (ESA). Planck studies the intensity and the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is the thermal remnant of the Big Bang. These latest results will no doubt frustrate cosmologists, because Planck has so far failed to shed much light on some of the biggest mysteries of physics, including what constitutes the dark matter and dark energy that appears to dominate the universe.

Planck ran from 2009–2013, and the first data were released in March last year, comprising temperature data taken during the first 15 months of observations. A more complete data set from Planck will be published later this month, and is being previewed this week at a conference in Ferrara, Italy ("Planck 2014 – The microwave sky in temperature and polarization"). So far, Planck scientists have revealed that a previous disagreement of 1–1.5% between Planck and its predecessor – NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) – regarding the mission's "absolute-temperature" measurements has been reduced to 0.3%.

One of the biggest challenges for Planck is to separate dust and CMB polarization in frequency bands around 100–200 GHz where both emissions are nearly indistinguishable. With that in mind, Planck was designed to have a channel dedicated to the observation of polarized dust – the 353 GHz channel.

“With the proper extrapolation in frequency, the 353 GHz data can be used to clean the lower frequency channels and get to the pristine CMB signal,” says Marc-Antoine Miville-Deschênes at the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay, France. “Interestingly, the 353 GHz channel is also bringing totally new information on the magnetic field of the Milky Way,” adds Miville-Deschênes, who is part of the Planck collaboration. In fact, he tells that this is the first time that such images could be obtained and that “Planck is providing us with all-sky data. We will be able to answer fundamental questions that were raised more than 60 years ago about the role of the magnetic field in the formation of stars".

Winnowing dark matter

Planck's latest measurement of the CMB polarization rules out a class of dark-matter models involving particle annihilation in the early universe. These models were developed to explain excesses of cosmic-ray positrons that have been measured by three independent experiments – the PAMELA mission, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope.

The Planck collaboration also revealed that it has, for the first time, "detected unambiguously" traces left behind by primordial neutrinos on the CMB. Such neutrinos are thought to have been released one second after the Big Bang, when the universe was still opaque to light but already transparent to these elusive particles. Planck has set an upper limit (0.23 eV/c2) on the sum of the masses of the three types of neutrinos known to exist. Furthermore, the new data exclude the existence of a fourth type of neutrino that is favoured by some models.

Planck versus BICEP2

Despite the new data, the collaboration did not give any insights into the recent controversy surrounding the possible detection of primordial "B-mode" polarization of the CMB by astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope. If verified, the BICEP2 observation would be "smoking-gun" evidence for the rapid "inflation" of the early universe – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe the universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang. A new analysis of polarized dust emission in our galaxy, carried out by Planck earlier in September, showed that the part of the sky observed by BICEP2 has much more dust than originally anticipated, and while this did not completely rule out BICEP2's original claim, it established that the dust emission is nearly as big as the entire BICEP2 signal. Both Planck and BICEP2 have since been working together on joint analysis of their data, but a result is still forthcoming.

  • This article was updated on 5 December 2014.