Amy Mainzer is an astronomer specializing in astrophysical instrumentation and infrared astronomy. She is currently the principal investigator for the NEOWISE comet-hunting mission.
Over the course of the nine months we've been operating WISE, we've observed over 150,000 asteroids and comets of all different types. We had to pick all of these moving objects out of the hundreds of millions of sources observed all over the sky -- so you can imagine that sifting through all those stars and galaxies to find the asteroids is not easy!
We use a lot of techniques to figure out how to distinguish an asteroid from a star or galaxy. Even though just about everything in the universe moves, asteroids are a whole lot closer to us than your average star (and certainly your average galaxy), so they appear to move from place to place in the WISE images over a timescale of minutes, unlike the much more distant stars. It's almost like watching a pack of cyclists go by in the Tour de France. Also, WISE takes infrared images, which means that cooler objects like asteroids look different than the hotter stars. If you look at the picture below, you can see that the stars appear bright blue, whereas the sole asteroid in the frame appears red. That's because the asteroid is about room temperature and is therefore much colder than the stars, which are thousands of degrees. Cooler objects will give off more of their light at longer, infrared wavelengths that our WISE telescope sees. We can use both of these unique properties of asteroids -- their motion and their bright infrared signatures -- to tease them out of the bazillions of stars and galaxies in the WISE images.
Thanks to the efforts of some smart scientists and software engineers, we have a very slick program that automatically searches the images for anything that moves at the longer, infrared wavelengths. With WISE, we take about a dozen or so images of each part of the sky over a couple of days. The system works by throwing out everything that appears again and again in each exposure. What's left are just the so-called transient sources, the things that don't stay the same between snapshots. Most of these are cosmic rays -- charged particles zooming through space that are either spat out by our sun or burped up from other high-energy processes like supernovae or stars falling into black holes. These cosmic rays hit our detectors, leaving a blip that appears for just a single exposure. Also, really bright objects can leave an after-image on the detectors that can persist for many minutes, just like when you stare at a light bulb and then close your eyes. We have to weed the real asteroid detections out from the cosmic rays and after-images.
The data pipeline is smart enough to catch most of these artifacts and figure out what the real moving objects are. However, if it's a new asteroid that no one has ever seen before, we have to have a human inspect the set of images and make sure that it's not just a collection of artifacts that happened to show up at the right place and right time. About 20 percent of the asteroids that we observe appear to be new, and we examine those using a program that we call our quality assurance (QA) system, which lets us rapidly sift through hundreds of candidate asteroids to make sure they're real. The QA system pops up a set of images of the candidate asteroid, along with a bunch of "before" and "after" images of the same part of the sky. This lets us eliminate any stars that might have been confused for the asteroids. Finally, since the WISE camera takes a picture every 11 seconds, we take a look at the exposures taken immediately before the ones with the candidate asteroid -- if the source is really just an after-image persisting after we've looked at something bright, it will be there in the previous frame. We've had many students -- three college students and two very talented high school students -- work on asteroid QA. They've become real pros at inspecting asteroid candidates!
Meanwhile, the hunt continues -- we're still trekking along through the sky with the two shortest-wavelength infrared bands, now that we've run out of the super-cold hydrogen that was keeping two of the four detectors operating. Even though our sensitivity is lower, we're still observing asteroids and looking for interesting things like nearby brown dwarfs (stars too cold to shine in visible light because they can't sustain nuclear fusion). Our dedicated team of asteroid inspectors keeps plugging away, keeping the quality of the detections very high so that we leave the best possible legacy when our little telescope's journey is finally done.
It's hard to believe that we've just crossed the six-month mark on WISE -- seems like just yesterday when we were all up at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Santa Barbara, shivering in the cold at night while watching the countdown clock. But the time is flying (literally!) as WISE whips by over our heads. We're analyzing data ferociously now, trying to get the images and the data ready for the public release next May. Even though the mission's lifetime is short, we've gotten into a semblance of a routine. We receive and process images of stars, galaxies and other objects taken by the spacecraft every day, and we're running our asteroid-hunting routine on Mondays and Thursdays. We've got a small army (well, okay, three -- but they do the work of a small army!) of extremely talented students who are helping us verify and validate the asteroid detections, as well as hunt for new comets in the data. Plus, there is an unseen, yet powerful, cadre of observers out there all over the world following up our observations.
And so it's come to pass that we've achieved some milestones. We completed our first survey of the entire sky on July 17 -- and we just discovered our 100th new near-Earth object! That's out of the approximately 25,000 new asteroids we've discovered in total so far; most of these hang out in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter and never get anywhere near Earth's orbit. These new discoveries will allow us to conduct an accurate census of both the near-Earth and main belt asteroid populations. We're really busy chewing on the data right now and calculating what it all means.
Because it's so short, this mission reminds me a little bit of what the first days of college felt like -- a tidal wave of new ideas, new sights and new thoughts. The pace of learning has been incredibly quick, whether I'm trying to get up to speed on asteroid evolution theories or tinkering with the software we use to write papers.
Speaking of papers, we're in the process of preparing to submit several to science journals; in fact, I've already submitted one. The gold standard of science, of course, is the peer-review process. We submit our paper to a journal, and the scientific editor assigns another scientist who is an expert in the field but not involved in the project (and who usually remains anonymous) to read it and offer comments. The referee's job is to "kick the tires," so to speak, and ask tough questions about the work to make sure it's sound. We get a chance to respond, and the referee gets a chance to respond to our responses, and then when everybody's convinced the results are right, the paper is accepted and can be published. So stay tuned -- we should have some of the first papers done soon telling us what these milestones mean for asteroid science.
We have discovered our first new near-Earth asteroid with WISE. Our first "golden ticket" is now known as 2010 AB78. It's an asteroid that is roughly 1 kilometer [about .6 miles] in diameter, so it's fairly large. The most interesting thing about it so far is that we thought we knew of about 85 percent of all the asteroids 1 kilometer and larger, so finding a big one like this is a little unusual. Of course, unlike Charlie and his chocolate bars, finding the golden ticket wasn't a matter of luck, but a meticulous search process more like a busy assembly line.
Near-Earth objects are asteroids and comets with orbits that get close to Earth's orbit. That doesn't mean they are going to hit the Earth, of course. It's sort of like driving on a busy street; just because there are a lot of cars zipping by on either side of you, it doesn't necessarily mean your car is going to hit one. The cars would have to be at the same place at the same time for that to happen. So even though the paths each car has traveled might get close, there is no collision.
WISE finds asteroids by using a sophisticated piece of software called the WISE Moving Object Processing System, or WMOPS. When we first get a set of images from WISE, we have software that automatically searches the images for all the sources in them, be they stars, galaxies or asteroids. The software records their positions and how bright they are. WMOPS goes into that source list and figures out which sources are moving compared to the fixed stars and galaxies in each frame. Then, it figures out which sources are actually the same object -- just observed at different times. So it's a pretty smart piece of code. The whole system has to be highly automated, since when the WISE survey is done, the source catalog will contain several hundred million sources! You can imagine that trying to sort through all of these to find individual objects would be very challenging without a nifty program like WMOPS.
Our newest addition to the approximately 6,600 near-Earth Asteroids that are currently known is shown in this new image above.
2010 AB78 shows up like a glowing red ember at the center of the image, because it's glowing brightly in infrared light with a wavelength of 12 microns, which is about 20 times redder than your eye can see. The stars appear blue, because they're much hotter, and they emit proportionally less of their energy at these long wavelengths. The color that the asteroids appear to WISE is an important feature we use to distinguish them from other stars and galaxies, in addition to their motion.
With this first asteroid discovery, we are flexing our muscles in preparation for the heavy lifting we're about to start.
Now that we are just days from launch (wow!), the team is making final decisions and preparations. We've just held our Flight Readiness Review, at which the final commitment to launch was made by NASA, the United Launch Alliance (the rocket folks) and the WISE project. It turns out that fueling our Delta II rocket's second stage engine is an irreversible process -- once we fuel the second stage, we have 34 days to launch the rocket. If we don't launch within 34 days of fueling it, we have to replace the second stage completely -- and that would mean taking WISE off the rocket. So we needed to be really sure that we were "go for launch" before we decided to fuel up the second stage. That is now done, and we are in the process of putting the final finishing touches on cooling down our solid hydrogen tanks.
These last few weeks and days before launch require a lot of flexibility of the team, since the schedule can change on a dime. There are about a million things having nothing to do with the launch vehicle or the spacecraft that can delay a launch -- winds, too much fog, too many clouds, lightning and even something as mundane as a fishing boat or aircraft straying into the "keepout" zone that's established around the launch site. You would think that the prospect of running into a giant, 330,000-pound rocket loaded with fuel would be enough to make people move out of the way, but sometimes they don't seem to get the message! Any of these items is enough to scrub a launch attempt.
But that's why we've built in the ability to make two consecutive launch attempts with WISE, separated by 24 hours. We get two tries. After that, our tank full of frozen hydrogen starts to warm up too much, and it takes two days for us to cool it back down. To keep the tank of frozen hydrogen a frosty 7 degrees above absolute zero (minus 447 Fahrenheit), we circulate an even colder refrigerant, liquid helium, around the outside of the tank. But the process of re-cooling takes two days; we have to hook all the hoses back up, cool everything down, then disconnect the hoses again before the next launch attempt.
So we have to be flexible. We've all put our lives on hold for the duration, since we have to be ready for anything that happens. Meanwhile, I've frantically tried to take care of stuff like cleaning the house and laying in supplies, because once WISE launches, things will go into overdrive. Needless to say, our families have all been very patient with us!
With WISE a mere month away from liftoff, it's probably a little late to be asking why we need to send it into space. But it's worth taking the time to explain why we go to all the trouble of sending something up on a rocket. While it's really cool to go into space, we're not just sending WISE up there for the fun of it. In this case, there's no other reasonable way to accomplish the mission's science goals: surveying the entire sky in infrared, finding the nearest star to our sun, and finding the most luminous galaxy in the universe. We can't do this from the ground.
It turns out that the main culprit that drives us into space and into an orbit more than 500 kilometers (about 360 miles) above the Earth's surface is our atmosphere. As wonderful as our atmosphere is for life on Earth, it wreaks havoc on astronomical images in many ways. For one, shifting pockets of warm and cool air drifting above a telescope -- or a human observer-- cause stars to twinkle. While pretty, this twinkling makes it difficult to get a good measurement of a star's true brightness (or, in astronomical terms, its "photometry"). The twinkling also reduces the telescope's sensitivity and resolution by enlarging the images it produces, making them blurrier and less sharp. This is true for all kinds of telescopes not just infrared ones.
Secondly, the atmosphere acts like a sponge at many wavelengths, soaking up light from the stars so that it never reaches the ground at all. Everybody's seen a rainbow at one time or another, and that range of colors -- from violet to red -- spans the maximum range of wavelengths that our eyes can see. But that is only a small fraction of the entire spectrum of light that's really out there in the universe. Our sun puts out most of its radiation in visible light, and most of that visible light makes it through our atmosphere to the ground. However, our atmosphere is only partially transparent to infrared wavelengths. Filled with water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane, our atmosphere absorbs almost all infrared light, so most of the infrared light emitted by distant stars, asteroids, and planets doesn't make it to observers on the ground. These molecules grab infrared light and trap it, preventing it from passing through the atmosphere (which is why they are called greenhouse gases). To see anything at all in most infrared colors, we have to get entirely above the Earth's atmosphere.
The final problem posed by our atmosphere for infrared astronomers is that it -- and the Earth itself -- is warm. Infrared light is characteristically emitted by room-temperature objects. Objects like you and I glow brightly in infrared light, and so does the Earth and its atmosphere. If you could see in infrared light, the night sky would look as bright as daylight! So when we're trying to detect the faint heat signatures of distant astronomical objects, a glowing, warm atmosphere is almost impossible to see through. This is why we must cool the WISE telescope to a mere 12 degrees above absolute zero (minus 438 Fahrenheit). Being in space with a cold telescope makes such a huge difference that the relatively modest-size WISE telescope, which is 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter, is equivalent in sensitivity to literally thousands of 8-meter (26-foot) telescopes on the ground. That small WISE telescope packs a punch.
So with that cleared up, we're just about ready to put WISE into the nose cone and crane it up onto the Delta II rocket that's waiting for us on the launch pad. Let's go see some stars!
Asteroids. The word conjures images of pitted rocks zooming through space, the cratered surfaces of planets and moons, and for some, memories of a primitive video game. Just how hazardous are these nearest neighbors of ours? We think that one contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs, giving rise to the age of mammals. How likely is this to happen again?
The Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) mission, an infrared telescope launching in about a year, will observe hundreds of near-Earth asteroids, offering unique insights into this question. The risk posed by hazardous asteroids is critically dependent on how many there are of different sizes. We know that there are more small asteroids than large ones, but how many more, and what are they made of?
Asteroids reflect sunlight (about half of which is the visible light that humans see), but the sun also warms them up, making them glow brightly in infrared light. The problem with observing asteroids in visible light alone is that it is difficult to distinguish between asteroids that are small and highly reflective, or large and dark. Both types of objects, when seen as distant points of light, can appear equally bright in visible light. However, by using infrared light to observe asteroids, we obtain a much more accurate measurement of their size. This is because the infrared light given off by most asteroids doesn’t depend strongly on reflectivity.
WISE will give us a much more accurate understanding of how many near-Earth asteroids there are of different sizes, allowing astronomers to better assess the hazard posed by asteroids. The danger posed by a near-Earth asteroid depends not only on its size, but also on its composition. An asteroid made of dense metals is more dangerous than one of the same size made mostly of less dense silicates. By combining infrared and visible measurements, we can determine how reflective the asteroids are, which gives us some indication of their composition.
Almost everyone has had the frustrating experience of getting lost. To avoid this problem, the savvy traveler carries a map. Similarly, astronomers need maps of the sky to know where to look, allowing us to make the best use of precious time on large telescopes. A map of the entire sky also helps scientists find the most rare and unusual types of objects, such as the nearest star to our sun and the most luminous galaxies in the universe. Our team (lead by our principal investigator, Dr. Ned Wright of UCLA) is building a new space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer that will make a map of the entire sky at four infrared wavelengths. Infrared is a type of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength about ten or more times longer than that of visible light; humans perceive it as heat.
Why do we want to map the sky in the infrared? Three reasons: First, since infrared is heat, we can use it to search for the faint heat generated by some of the coldest objects in the universe, such as dusty planetary debris discs around other stars, asteroids and ultra-cold brown dwarfs, which straddle the boundary between planets and stars. Second, we can use it to look for very distant (and therefore very old) objects, such as galaxies that formed only a billion years after the Big Bang. Since light is redshifted by the expansion of the universe, the most distant quasars and galaxies will have their visible light shifted into infrared wavelengths. And finally, infrared light has the remarkable property of passing through dust. Just as firefighters use infrared goggles to find people through the smoke in burning buildings, astronomers can use infrared to peer through dense, dusty clouds to see things like newborn stars, or the dust-enshrouded cores of galaxies.
So how does one go about building an infrared space telescope? And why does it need to be in space in the first place? Since infrared is heat, you can imagine that trying to observe the faint heat signatures of distant astronomical sources from our nice warm Earth would be very difficult. A colleague of mine compares ground-based infrared astronomy to observing in visible light during the middle of the day, using a telescope made out of fluorescent light bulbs! Putting your infrared telescope in the deep freeze of space, well away from the warmth of Earth, improves its sensitivity by orders of magnitude over a much larger ground-based infrared telescope.
On the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer project, our team is in the middle of one of the most exciting phases of building a spacecraft -- we're assembling and testing the payload. Right now, the major pieces of the observatory have been designed and manufactured, and we're in the process of integrating all these pieces together. The payload is elegantly simple. It has only one moving part -- a small scan mirror designed to "freeze-frame" the sky for each approximately 10 second exposure as the spacecraft slowly scans. After six months, we will have imaged the entire sky. The telescope is flying the latest generation of megapixel infrared detector arrays, along with an off-axis telescope that gives us the wide field of view that we need to cover the whole sky so quickly. In the next few months, we'll be setting the focus on our telescope, characterizing our detector arrays, and verifying the thermal performance of our cryostat. The observatory's cryostat is essentially a giant thermos containing the cryogenic solid hydrogen that we use to keep our telescope and detectors at their operating temperatures near absolute zero.
We are also in the midst of making detailed plans for verifying that the spacecraft is working properly once we launch. This is called the "in-orbit checkout" phase. For this mission, checkout is fast -- only 30 days! The checkout commences right after our November 2009 launch, when we wake the spacecraft up and begin switching on its various subsystems: Power generation and distribution, communications, attitude control and momentum management, and the main computer system. We'll also power on the payload electronics and detectors. Next, we will begin the calibration observations that we need to start the survey, such as verifying the telescope's image quality and the way our detector arrays respond to light. Once these steps are completed, we'll be ready to extend our gaze across the universe using the observatory's infrared eyes.
The great thing about the mission's all-sky dataset is that it will be accessible to everyone in the entire world via a Web interface. So you will literally be able to access some of the coldest, most distant and dustiest parts of the universe from the comfort of your couch. Stay tuned to explore the universe with us!