Celestial treasure trove

WISE image of the Andromeda galaxy

WISE's infrared view of the Andromeda galaxy ignores most of the stars, and instead brings out detail in dust clouds heated by the energy of stars.

  • WISE space telescope studied the cosmos at infrared wavelengths
  • It took 2.7 million images during its mission
  • Huge archive of images and data has now been released

ASTRONOMERS ARE SIFTING through hundreds of millions of galaxies, stars and asteroids collected in the first bundle of data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

WISE launched into space on December 14, 2009, on a mission to map the entire sky in infrared light with greatly improved sensitivity and resolution over its predecessors.

From its orbit, it scanned the skies about one-and-a-half times while collecting images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light. It took more than 2.7 million images over the course of its mission, capturing objects ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids relatively close to Earth.

Like other infrared telescopes, WISE required coolant to chill its heat-sensitive detectors. When this frozen hydrogen coolant ran out, as expected, in early October, 2010, two of its four infrared channels were still operational.

The survey was then extended for four more months, with the goal of finishing its sweep for asteroids and comets in the main asteroid belt of our Solar System.

The satellite went into hibernation in early February of this year.

WISE image of IC 342

Spiral galaxy IC 342 is normally hard to see through the stars of the Milky Way, but WISE's infrared eyes can see it spectacular detail.

WISE image Rho Ophiuchi

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is one of the nearest star-forming regions to Earth. WISE's infrared capabilities enable astronomers to see normally hidden details.

The mission’s nearby discoveries included 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and 133 near-Earth objects, which are those asteroids and comets with orbits that come close to Earth’s path around the Sun.

Data from the first 57 percent of the sky surveyed is now accessible through an online public archive. The complete survey, with improved data processing, will be made available in the spring of 2012.

A predecessor to WISE, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, served a similar role about 25 years ago, and those data are still valuable to astronomers today. Likewise, the WISE legacy is expected to endure for decades.

Astronomers will use WISE’s infrared data to hunt for hidden oddities, and to study trends in large populations of known objects. Survey missions often result in the unexpected discoveries too, because they are looking everywhere in the sky rather than at known targets.

The whole collection can be seen at: http://wise.ssl.berkeley.edu/gallery_images.html

Adapted from information issued by JPL.

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