November 25, 2004

USU Lands NASA Contract for Telescope

LOGAN, Utah (AP) -- Utah State University has secured a $40 million contract with NASA to build an orbiting telescope that will examine galaxies and try to find new stars.

The WISE - or Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer - telescope is part of a $208 million NASA mission to update its comprehensive map of the universe. After its scheduled launch in 2008, the telescope will detect infrared light, such as heat radiation, coming from objects currently undetectable.

The 1,000-pound device will sit on a spacecraft that will spend up to 12 months orbiting over the north and south poles about 800 miles into space.

Peter Eisenhardt, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said WISE will be 500 to 500,000 times more sensitive than previous infrared surveys, depending on the wavelength.

"Probably the most exciting thing about WISE for me is the potential of finding a star closer to the sun than any we know about now," he said. "We haven't found about two-thirds of the closest stars to the sun because they're really faint and cool and dim."

The new asteroids of greatest interest are those that could intercept Earth's orbit, said Harry Ames, deputy director of Utah State's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Ames said this survey will also seek dim stars, known as brown dwarfs, that may be lurking closer than the nearest visible stars.

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite, launched in 1983, was the last mission designed to conduct an infrared, all-sky survey of the universe. Ames said advances in technology now offer the chance for getting a resolution thousands of times better than the last survey.

NASA will use results from the survey to determine how best to use the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2011.


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