Thursday, April 14, 2011

WISE Delivers Millions of Galaxies, Stars, Asteroids

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)
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First Batch of Data Released
WISE has released 57 percent of its first sky survey to the astronomy community, as depicted here in this two-dimensional projection of the whole sky. The fuzzy line down the middle is our Milky Way galaxy, and bright clouds are star-forming complexes. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA .

Orion’s Big Head Revealed
In Greek mythology, Orion was a vain hunter who was banished to the sky. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has captured a picture of the hunter's "head" (fuzzy red star in middle). The picture shows a giant nebula around the star -- inflating Orion's head to huge proportions.

The Art of Making Stars
It might look like an abstract painting, but this splash of colors is in fact a busy star-forming complex called Rho Ophiuchi. WISE captured this picturesque image of the region, which is one of the closest star-forming complexes to Earth.

Star Plows Through Space
A massive star flung away from its former companion is plowing through space dust. The result is a brilliant bow shock, seen here as a yellow arc.

Galaxies of a Different Color
WISE captured a striking view of two companion galaxies -- a somewhat tranquil spiral beauty (blue galaxy) and its rambunctious partner blazing with smoky star formation (yellow galaxy).

Jellyfish or Dying Star?
This image composite shows two views of a puffy, dying star, or planetary nebula, known as NGC 1514. The view on the left is from a ground-based, visible-light telescope; the view on the right shows the object in infrared light, as seen by WISE.

Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
The immense Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or simply M31, is captured in full. The mosaic covers an area equivalent to more than 100 full moons, or five degrees across the sky.

Cosmic Rosebud
This image shows a cosmic rosebud blossoming with new stars. The stars, called the Berkeley 59 cluster, are the blue dots to the right of the image center. They are ripening out of the dust cloud from which they formed, and at just a few million years old, are young on stellar time scales.

The Hidden Galaxy (IC 342)
The spiral beauty, called IC 342 and sometimes Hidden galaxy, is shrouded behind our Milky Way galaxy's bright band of stars, dust and gas. WISE's infrared vision cuts through this veil, offering a crisp view.
Full image and caption

Soul Nebula
This cosmic cloud, known as the Soul nebula, is one of many sites of star formation within the Milky Way galaxy. It is located 3,800 light-years away from Earth and is nearly 240 light-years across.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant
The red circle visible in the image is SN 1572, also known as Tycho's supernova remnant. When the star exploded, it sent a blast wave into the surrounding material, scooping up interstellar dust and gas as it went. The light captured by WISE in this view is from dust heated by the shock wave.
Full image and caption

Comet Siding Spring
A comet like this one spends most of its long life in the darkest, coldest parts of our solar system. It heats up as it approaches the sun, shedding ices and dust in a long tail. Comet Siding Spring, having experienced this warm awakening, is glowing in infrared light that WISE can see.

WISE's First Near-Earth Asteroid
The red dot near the center of this image is the first near-Earth asteroid discovered by WISE. This particular asteroid, 2010 AB78, is roughly one kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter, and is about 158 million kilometers (98 million miles) away from Earth. Its path will not intersect with Earth.

Star Clusters
This colorful image is a view of an area of the sky more than 12 times the size of our full moon. Two types of star clusters are visible -- a wispy nebula and a globular star cluster.

Astronomers across the globe can now sift through hundreds of millions of galaxies, stars and asteroids collected in the first bundle of data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

"Starting today thousands of new eyes will be looking at WISE data, and I expect many surprises," said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, the mission's principal investigator.

WISE launched into space on Dec. 14, 2009 on a mission to map the entire sky in infrared light with greatly improved sensitivity and resolution over its predecessors. From its polar orbit, it scanned the skies about one-and-a-half times while collecting images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light. It took more than 2.7 million images over the course of its mission, capturing objects ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids relatively close to Earth.

Like other infrared telescopes, WISE required coolant to chill its heat-sensitive detectors. When this frozen hydrogen coolant ran out, as expected, in early October, 2010, two of its four infrared channels were still operational. The survey was then extended for four more months, with the goal of finishing its sweep for asteroids and comets in the main asteroid belt of our solar system.

The mission's nearby discoveries included 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and 133 near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are those asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 28 million miles (about 45 million kilometers) of Earth's path around the sun. The satellite went into hibernation in early February of this year.

Today, WISE is taking the first major step in meeting its primary goal of delivering the mission's trove of objects to astronomers. Data from the first 57 percent of the sky surveyed is accessible through an online public archive. The complete survey, with improved data processing, will be made available in the spring of 2012. A predecessor to WISE, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, served a similar role about 25 years ago, and those data are still valuable to astronomers today. Likewise, the WISE legacy is expected to endure for decades.

"We are excited that the preliminary data contain millions of newfound objects," said Fengchuan Liu, the project manager for WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "But the mission is not yet over -- the real treasure is the final catalog available a year from now, which will have twice as many sources, covering the entire sky and reaching even deeper into the universe than today's release."

Astronomers will use WISE's infrared data to hunt for hidden oddities, and to study trends in large populations of known objects. Survey missions often result in the unexpected discoveries too, because they are looking everywhere in the sky rather than at known targets. Data from the mission are also critical for finding the best candidates for follow-up studies with other telescopes, including the European Space Agency's Herschel observatory, which has important NASA contributions.

"WISE is providing the newest-generation 'address book' of the infrared universe with the precise location and brightness of hundreds of millions of celestial objects," said Roc Cutri, lead scientist for WISE data processing at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "WISE continues the long tradition of infrared sky surveys supported by Caltech, stretching back to the 1969 Two Micron Sky Survey."

So far, the WISE mission has released dozens of colorful images of the cosmos, in which infrared light has been assigned colors we see with our eyes. The whole collection can be seen at .

The public archive for astronomers is online at Instructions for astronomy enthusiasts wanting to try their hand at using the archive are at

JPL manages and operates the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The 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.

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.