Outer space became a bit clearer Wednesday as NASA released the first set of public images from its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).
On Jan. 14, the WISE mission began its official survey of the sky in infrared light; NASA plans to eventually scan the entire sky. By observing space with infrared light, WISE is expected to reveal previously unseen objects.
The first images from WISE include striking depictions of a comet blazing across the sky, a cloud of stardust, several images of Milky Way neighbor the Andromeda galaxy, and a nearby cluster of galaxies.
For example, one image shows a massive star-forming cloud packed with gasses, dust and newly formed stars. At the center of the cloud is a cluster of newborn stars -- among them, some of the most massive stars ever found -- called NGC 3603. According to NASA, the evidence in the picture may show that some of the most massive stars catalyzed the development of others.
The $320 million-plus WISE was launched on December 14, 2009 and is being managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After completing a month of testing to make sure everything was working properly, the satellite began a 6-month survey of the sky in January. Among its instruments are a 40-centimeter telescope.
In scanning the sky in infrared, its mission is several-fold. According to NASA, WISE will scan the most luminous galaxies in the universe, the stars closest to the sun, most large asteroids in the main asteroid belt, comets, brown dwarf stars and all of the more than 50 galaxies in our "local group" of galaxies. This work should enable any number of studies into the history of planets, stars and galaxies.
Already, WISE is making discoveries. It recently found its first new comet, a "dusty mass of ice," racing into space about 109 million miles from the sun. The comet is appropriately known as WISE, and is more than 1.2 miles in diameter. NASA expects WISE (the satellite) to discover perhaps dozens of comets
"WISE has worked superbly," Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "These first images are proving the spacecraft's secondary mission of helping to track asteroids, comets and other stellar objects will be just as critically important as its primary mission of surveying the entire sky in infrared."
WISE is one of three infrared missions in space, but its mission is much broader. The effort will wind down in October, when the coolant required to chill the satellite's instruments is slated to run out.
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