Spacecraft begins 'road map' of universe

After more than 10 years of planning and preparation, and a few last-minute delays, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists launched Monday an infrared telescope designed to map the entire sky using infrared light.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope will spend the next nine months photographing images in long-wavelength infrared light, at the rate of one image every 11 seconds, sending millions of images back to earth for analysis.

Mission team members hope to create a “road map” of the universe, including near-Earth asteroids, old and dying stars, planet-forming disks and distant galaxies.

The device was launched atop a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara early Monday morning after a three-day delay due to bad weather and rocket maintenance issues.

Just 10 seconds after it had detached from the rocket that launched it into orbit, NASA officials reported that WISE had sent its first signals to JPL scientists on the ground. Three minutes later solar powers on the device were oriented to the sun to begin generating power for the telescope and valves opened on a cryostat chamber surrounding the device with hydrogen ice.

WISE must be kept cold in order to detect heat from distant sources, according to Ned Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator for the mission.

The scope now hovers in an orbit 323 miles above the earth. From this vantage point, it will find objects and celestial bodies that emit long wave lengths, according to Amy Mainzer, JPL deputy project scientist for the mission.

“We will see everything from the Earth’s backyard to the edge of the universe, so to speak,” Mainzer said. “It’s going to be fun—it’s going to be really fun.”

It will take WISE about six months to scan the entire sky, though the device will continue mapping until its frozen hydrogen supply is exhausted, which is expected to occur after nine months, Mainzer said.

The last time an infrared telescope was used by NASA was 1983, and it was only able to snap images at a resolution of about 62 pixels, Mainzer said. Despite its limitations, scientists are still drawing fresh data from what it was able to capture. By comparison, WISE has a 4.0 megapixel resolution, so it will be able to focus much farther than its predecessor.

Mainzer said JPL team members expect to receive information on hundreds of millions of “sources,” or objects in the sky, a process that will take decades or longer.

“I hope to retire using WISE data, and see people still using it, maybe JPL scientists who haven’t even been born yet,” she added.

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