The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images. The mission will uncover objects never seen before, including the coolest stars, the universe's most luminous galaxies and some of the darkest near-Earth asteroids and comets. Its vast catalogs will help answer fundamental questions about the origins of planets, stars and galaxies, and provide a feast of data for astronomers to munch on for decades to come.
Thanks to next-generation technology, WISE's sensitivity is hundreds of times greater than its predecessor, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which operated in 1983.
WISE will join two other infrared missions in space -- NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation. WISE is different from these missions in that it will survey the entire sky. It is designed to cast a wide net to catch all sorts of unseen cosmic treasures, including rare oddities.
The closest of WISE's finds will be near-Earth objects, both asteroids and comets, with orbits that come close to crossing Earth's path. The mission is expected to find hundreds of these bodies, and hundreds of thousands of additional asteroids in our solar system's main asteroid belt. By measuring the objects' infrared light, astronomers will get the first good estimate of the size distribution of the asteroid population. This information will tell us approximately how often Earth can expect an encounter with a potentially hazardous asteroid. WISE data will also reveal new information about the composition of near-Earth objects and asteroids -- are they fluffy like snow or hard like rocks, or both?
The next closest targets for WISE are dim stars called brown dwarfs. These Jupiter-like balls of gas form like stars but fail to gather up enough mass to ignite like stars. The objects are cool and faint, and nearly impossible to see in visible light. WISE should uncover about 1,000 in total, and will double or triple the number of star-like objects known within 25 light-years of Earth. What's more, if a brown dwarf is lurking closer to us than the closest known star, Proxima Centauri, WISE will find it and the little orb will become famous for being the "closest known star."
The most distant objects that will stand out like ripe cherries in WISE's view are tremendously energetic galaxies. Called ultraluminous infrared galaxies, or ULIRGs, these objects shine with the light of up to a trillion suns. They crowd the distant universe, but appear virtually absent in visible-light surveys. WISE should find millions of ultra-luminous infrared galaxies, and the most luminous of these could be the most luminous galaxy in the universe.
Other nuggets to come out of the WISE survey will be newborn stars; disks of planetary debris around young stars; a detailed look at the structure of our Milky Way galaxy; clusters of galaxies in the far universe and more. The most interesting finds will lay the groundwork for follow-up studies with other missions, such as NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the Herschel Space Observatory, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's upcoming SOFIA airborne telescope and NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. Powerful ground-based telescopes will also follow up on WISE discoveries.
As with past all-sky surveys, surprises are sure to come. For example, one of the most surprising finds to come out of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite mission was the discovery of excess infrared light around familiar stars like Vega and Fomalhaut. Astronomers soon determined that the excess light comes from pulverized rock in disks of planetary debris. The findings implied that rocky planets like Earth could be common. Today hundreds of astronomers study these debris disks, and Hubble recently captured an actual photograph of a planet orbiting Fomalhaut within its disk.
WISE will orbit Earth at an altitude of 525 kilometers (326 miles), circling Earth via the poles about 15 times a day. A scan mirror within the WISE instrument will stabilize the line of sight so that snapshots can be taken every 11 seconds over the entire sky. Each position on the sky will be imaged a minimum of eight times, and some areas near the poles will be imaged more than 1,000 times.
The mission's sensitive infrared telescope and detectors are kept chilled inside a Thermos-like tank of solid hydrogen, called a cryostat. This prevents WISE from picking up the heat, or infrared, signature of its own instrument. The solid hydrogen, called a cryogen, is expected to last about 10 months and will keep the WISE telescope a chilly 17 degrees Kelvin (minus 429 degrees Fahrenheit).
After a one-month checkout period, the infrared surveyor will spend six months mapping the whole sky. It will then begin a second scan to uncover even more objects and to look for any changes in the sky that might have occurred since the first survey. This second partial sky survey will end about three months later when the spacecraft's frozen-hydrogen cryogen runs out. Data from the mission will be released to the astronomical community in two stages: a preliminary release will take place six months after the end of the survey, or about 16 months after launch, and a final release is scheduled for 17 months after the end of the survey, or about 27 months after launch.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The mission's principal investigator, Edward L. (Ned) Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected in 2002 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 will take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
The mission's education and public outreach office is based at the University of California, Berkeley.