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Thu, Jun 11, 2009

NASA WISE To Scan The Heavens

California Launch Scheduled For November 1st

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has been assembled and is undergoing final preparations for a planned Nov. 1 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The mission will survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths, creating acosmic clearinghouse of hundreds of millions of objects -- everything from the most luminous galaxies, to the nearest stars, to dark and potentiallyhazardous asteroids. The survey will be the most detailed to date in infrared light, with a sensitivity hundreds of times better than that of its predecessor, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite.

"Most of the sky has never been imaged at these infrared wavelengths with this kind of sensitivity," said Edward Wright, the mission's principalinvestigator at UCLA. "We are sure to find many surprises."

On May 17, the mission's science instrument was delivered to Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., where it was attached to the spacecraft, built by Ball. The assembled unit was then blasted by sound to simulate the effects of launch. Tests for electronic "noise" in the detectors will be performed next.

The science instrument is a 16 inch telescope with four infrared cameras. A cryostat, or cooler, uses frozen hydrogen to chill the sensitive megapixel infrared detectors down to seven Kelvin (minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit). The instrument was built by Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

Among expected finds from WISE are hundreds of thousands of asteroids in our solar system's asteroid belt, and hundreds of additional asteroids that come near Earth. Many asteroids have gone undetected because they don't reflect much visible light, but their heat makes them glow in infrared light that WISE can see. By cataloguing the objects, the mission will provide better estimates of their sizes, a critical step for assessing the risk associated with those that might impact Earth.

"We know that asteroids occasionally hit Earth, and we'd like to have a better idea of how many there are and their sizes," said Amy Mainzer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., the mission's deputy project scientist. "Whether they are dark or shiny, they all emit infrared light. They can't hide from WISE."

WISE will lift off from Vandenberg aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket (file  photo, above). It will orbit Earth, mapping the entire sky in six months after a one-month checkout period. Its frozen hydrogen is expected to last several months longer, allowing WISE to map much of the sky a second time and see what has changed.

FMI: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/

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