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12/11/2009
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NASA Comet Hunter Set For Monday Launch

Weekend liftoff of WISE space telescope scrubbed due to faulty steering engine.

NASA delayed until Monday the launch of a space telescope designed to create a highly detailed map of the heavens and spot comets and asteroids that could pose a threat to life on Earth.

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, was slated to lift off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base atop a Delta II rocket Friday, but a balky booster steering engine forced the delay.

"Mission managers have implemented a plan to resolve the issue," NASA said in a statement. Crews from the space agency will work over the weekend to remove and replace a suspect component, NASA said.

The forecast calls for an 80% chance of acceptable weather for Monday's launch. Plans call for the rocket to head south, traverse the California coastline, and veer out over the Pacific Ocean.

Once in orbit, WISE will use an infrared camera to map the cosmos.

The mission calls for the unmanned spacecraft to cover the entire sky one-and-a-half times, until its frozen coolant runs out. NASA hopes it will capture everything from near-Earth asteroids to distant galaxies teeming with stars.

"The last time we mapped the whole sky at these particular infrared wavelengths was 26 years ago," noted UCLA's Edward Wright, who is principal mission manager.

"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," said Wright.

WISE is designed to provide information about the size, composition, and texture of near-Earth objects such as comets and asteroids. "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.

WISE will also attempt to document the cycle of life in the Universe, as it will capture faraway images of star-hatching galaxies and ravenous, planet-eating black holes.

Maybe it can also figure out what those blue lights over Norway were.

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