It's been 26 years since scientists have made a survey of infrared-radiating objects in the universe and a lot has changed since then.
"The old all-sky infrared pictures were like impressionist paintings — now, we'll have images that look like actual photographs," said UCLA's Ned Wright, the lead scientist of NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which was launched into space on Monday.
During its planned 10-month mission, WISE will map objects ranging in temperatures from about minus-330 degrees Fahrenheit to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, targets that include asteroids, brown dwarf stars and a type of star-forming galaxy known as ultraluminous infrared galaxies, which put out more than a trillion times the light of our sun.
Among WISE's most intriguing targets, however, are objects that have not yet been discovered.
"We're going to find things that nobody has imagined yet," predicts Wright.
The telescope was put into a 325-mile high polar orbit by an unmanned Delta 2 rocket, which lifted off from California's Vandenberg Air
Force Base at 9:09 a.m. EST. The observatory includes a 16-inch telescope and four infrared detectors packed inside a small tank filled with frozen hydrogen.
To detect the faint heat of infrared emissions, WISE's instruments need to be kept extremely cold — at least minus-447 degrees Fahrenheit. The coolant will be
used up in about 10 months, so there's little time to spare.
Scientists plan to take about a month to calibrate the telescope and make sure it is working properly before beginning sky surveys. The first maps are expected to be released about six months after WISE mission concludes.
(Celestial census-taker gets a ride into orbit. Credit: SpaceFlightNow.com)