NASA launches infrared telescope to scan entire sky

NASA on Monday successfully launched a new infrared telescope into space to scan the cosmos for undiscovered asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth.

NASA on Monday successfully launched a new infrared telescope into space to scan the universe for undiscovered asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth.

Named the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, the spacecraft will use its camera to detect light- and heat-emitting objects that other orbiting telescopes, such as the Hubble, may not be able to see.

WISE was launched at 9:09 a.m. ET aboard a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch was postponed from Friday because of a problem with the motion of a booster steering engine.

The unmanned, solar-powered spacecraft is expected to spend the next nine months in orbit, 326 miles above the Earth. Its infrared lens eventually will cover the whole sky 1.5 times and capture photographs every 11 seconds.

The last time NASA mapped the entire sky was with the Infrared Astronomical Satellite in 1983. That spacecraft discovered six comets.

Two other infrared spacecraft currently occupy the sky: NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory. Both, however, focus on specific objects and are not used for surveying the entire sky.

NASA expects WISE to find hundreds of asteroids and comets with orbits that come close to crossing Earth's path. By measuring those objects' infrared light, WISE can determine their size and composition and use the data to examine the magnitude of the threat by mapping out an object's potential trajectory.

WISE is also tasked with finding dim stars called brown dwarfs and discerning the millions of far-away galaxies that are shrouded from view by dust.

Data taken by the spacecraft will be downloaded by radio transmission four times per day to computers on Earth. Scientists will combine the telescope's overlapping images into a master image that maps out the entire celestial sphere and the objects in it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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