Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer


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Infrared Missions

Infrared astronomy is thriving in Pasadena at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology. JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the U.S. portion of the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory. JPL managed the Infrared Astronomical Satellite and collaborated with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on the Two-Micron All-Sky Survey. Data from all of these missions are or were processed and archived at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech.

Artist's concept of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer

Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)

This spacecraft will scan the entire sky in infrared light at four infrared wavelengths -- 3.4, 4.6, 12 and 22 microns (these wavelengths are roughly 5 to 30 times longer than what we see with our eyes). WISE will pick up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and produce 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 mountain of data for astronomers to mine for decades to come.

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Artist's concept of the Spitzer Space Telescope

Spitzer Space Telescope

This infrared member of NASA's family of Great Observatories launched in Aug. 2003 and is still up and observing the cosmos. In May of 2009, it used up all of its liquid-helium coolant, but two of its infrared channels still function perfectly. (Spitzer's 3.6 and 4.5-micron bands are still gathering data; it used to observe infrared light ranging from 3.6 to 160 microns). The telescope continues to probe stars, galaxies and more, and has taken on some new projects, such as sizing up near-Earth asteroids and comets, and measuring the expansion rate of the universe. Spitzer is different from WISE in that it studies fewer objects in greater detail. WISE is like a wide-angle camera and Spitzer is like the telephoto lens. Spitzer is expected to follow up on interesting targets discovered by WISE, such as brown dwarfs and luminous galaxies. Some of Spitzer's greatest achievements include: the first direct detection of light from a planet around a star other than our sun; the unmasking of hundreds of dark and dusty black holes; the identification of massive galaxies that formed less than one billion years after the Big Bang; and the discovery of a huge halo around Saturn and its rings.

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Artist's concept of the Herschel Spacecraft

Herschel Space Observatory

This European Space Agency-led mission with important participation from NASA was launched in May of 2009, coincidentally just one day before Spitzer used up its last drop of helium. It is the largest infrared space telescope ever flown, with a mirror 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) in diameter. Like Spitzer, this telescope is designed to study specific objects in detail rather than survey the whole sky as WISE will do. Herschel measures infrared light but is optimized to detect longer wavelengths, in the so-called far-infrared and submillimeter ranges (55 to 650 microns). It can see the coldest and dustiest objects in space; for example, cool cocoons where stars form and dusty galaxies just starting to brighten up with new stars. The observatory will sift through star-forming clouds -- the "slow cookers" of star ingredients -- to trace the path by which potentially life-forming molecules, such as water, form.

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Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS)

Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS)

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite, known commonly by its acronym, IRAS, was a joint project between NASA, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It conducted the first all-sky infrared survey from space. The satellite was launched in January 1983, circling Earth in a 900-kilometer (559-mile) polar orbit for 10 months before exhausting all of its liquid-helium coolant. It mapped 96 percent of the sky in four broad wavelength bands, centered at 12, 25, 60 and 100 microns, yielding the first global census of the sky at these wavelengths. The mission detected about 350,000 infrared sources, and its data essentially built the framework for all subsequent infrared observatories. The satellite's most significant discoveries include ultraluminous infrared galaxies, disks of planet-forming dust around the star Vega and other stars, six new comets, and wisps of warm, dusty material called infrared cirrus that pervades our galaxy. WISE will be hundreds of times more sensitive that the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, thanks to improved next-generation infrared technology. This improved sensitivity means that WISE will see hundreds of millions of objects.

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Northern 2MASS Telescope

Two-Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS)

The Two-Micron All-Sky Survey, commonly referred to as 2MASS, was a joint project between NASA, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. The mission used two ground-based infrared telescopes -- one at Mount Hopkins, Ariz., and the other at Cerro Tololo, Chile -- to conduct the most thorough high-resolution digital survey of the entire sky, observing nearly 500 million objects at wavelengths of 1.2, 1.6, and 2.2 microns. The Arizona telescope began observations in June 1997, while the Chilean telescope began in March 1998. The survey concluded in February 2001. The project's major contributions are the detection of hundreds of brown dwarfs, mapping of the Milky Way's structure and dust distribution, charting of the large-scale structure of the nearby universe, observations of galaxies hidden behind the disk of the Milky Way, and discoveries of numerous dust-obscured galaxies and quasars in the distant universe. This survey improved upon a predecessor infrared sky survey, the Two-Micron Sky Survey, conducted in the 1960s by Robert Leighton and Gerry Neugebauer of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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