Infrared Space Telescope Launched from California
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – NASA's new infrared space telescope was launched into orbit on Monday 14 December 2009 on a 10-month mission expected to reveal previously unseen objects ranging from near-Earth asteroids to some of the most distant galaxies in the cosmos.
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, was carried into a polar orbit 326 miles (525 km) above Earth by a Delta II rocket that lifted off before dawn from Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California.
"All systems are looking good, and we are on our way to seeing the entire sky better than ever before," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
The $320 million (196 million pounds) instrument is designed to scan the entire heavens for the infrared radiation, or glow of heat, given off by objects that are too cold, too far away or too shrouded in dust to be seen by conventional visible-light telescopes.
Scientists say the spacecraft's detectors are about 500 times more sensitive than those of the last infrared sky survey in 1983, and are capable of producing photograph-quality images of the objects they find.
Among phenomena likely to be uncovered are large numbers of failed stars called brown dwarfs – balls of gas many times smaller than the sun that lack sufficient mass to trigger their own internal stellar engines.
Optically invisible, brown dwarfs are thought to be more numerous than actual stars in the nearby universe. Some may reside even closer to Earth than the nearest known star, Proxima Centauri, about 4 light years away.
Closer to home, WISE is expected to find hundreds of previously uncharted asteroids and comets in the neighbourhood of Earth's orbit, revealing more about the inventory of such "near-Earth objects" and their composition.
At the farthest reach of its gaze, WISE will be able to illuminate and peer through the dense haze that has obscured some of the most distant and powerful star clusters in the universe – a class of objects called ultra-luminous galaxies.
Located 10 billion light years from Earth, these galaxies are believed to be super-incubators of new stars, shining with more than a trillion times the light of the sun, though most of that light is emitted in infrared.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Osterman)