December 14, 2009

WISE Launch Successful

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission launched successfully at 9:09am EST today.

After a one-month checkout, the mission will spend the next nine months mapping the cosmos in infrared light. It will cover the whole sky one-and-a-half times, snapping millions of pictures of everything from near-Earth asteroids to faraway galaxies bursting with new stars.

"The last time we mapped the whole sky at these particular infrared wavelengths was 26 years ago," said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, who is the principal investigator of the mission. "Infrared technology has come a long way since then. The old all-sky infrared pictures were like impressionist paintings -- now, we'll have images that look like actual photographs."

The closest of the mission's finds will be asteroids and comets with orbits that come relatively close to Earth's path around the sun. These are called near-Earth objects. The infrared explorer will provide size and composition information about hundreds of these objects, giving us a better idea of their diversity. How many are dark like coal, and how many are shiny and bright? And how do their sizes differ? The mission will help answer these questions through its infrared observations, which provide information that can't be obtained using visible-light telescopes.

"We can help protect our Earth by learning more about the diversity of potentially hazardous asteroids and comets," said Amy Mainzer, deputy project scientist for the mission at JPL.

The farthest of the mission's targets are powerful galaxies that are either churning out loads of new stars or dominated by voracious black holes. These galaxies are shrouded in dust, and often can't be seen in visible light. WISE will expose millions, and may even find the most energetic, or luminous, galaxy in the universe.

"WISE can see these dusty objects so far away that we will be looking back in time 10 billion years, when galaxies were forming," said Peter Eisenhardt, the mission's project scientist at JPL. "By scanning the entire sky, we'll learn just how extreme this galaxy formation process can get."

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The mission's principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/wise, http://wise.astro.ucla.edu and http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/wise.