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WISE Launched Today to Survey the Whole Sky

Engineers prepare the WISE satellite before it launched, which occurred this Saturday at Vandenburg AFB in California.  Photo Credit: NASA

The WISE satellite is now in polar orbit around the Earth ready to survey the Milky Way for a period of nine months.  The cyrogenically operating satellite will remain forever in twilight as it passes the north and south ends of the Earth.  It's goal is to find near earth objects (NEOs), such as asteroids, along with distant objects past our Sun.  It launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base, Monday December 14, 2009.

According to an Associate Research Scientist on the project, Bob McMillan, "I'm looking forward to unexpected finds from the detector."  Although the main goal of the project is to find NEOs, WISE has the potential to notice space objects, such as brown dwarf stars, unable to be seen by current space telescopes.  The newly launched mid-infrared telescope also has the potential to find brown dwarfs closer than the nearest known observable star Alpha Centauri.  "WISE could potentially find the first destination for an interstellar mission," continued McMillan.  McMillan believes work done by the WISE mission may let us find nearby brown dwarfs closer than Alpha Centauri with orbiting planet bodies.

Taking a survey of the night sky, the ten month NASA mission is a continuation of a previous mission of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).  "Each location of the sky is observed 8-12 times," said McMillan.  WISE will cover the sky 1 1/2 times, after nine months of observing.  The data accrued for the mission will later be online at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech, and "released to the whole scientific community."

The data from the mission will be extensive.  So much, that information had been obtained from the IRAS mission that it will continue to be investigated for some time.

One of the most difficult objects for WISE to detect will be NEOs that are visually dark.  The mid infrared telescope should be able to detect objects darker than coal orbiting the solar system.  Unfortunately, dark matter will be too dark to be detected by WISE, even though the telescope should be able to detect very distant galaxies.

To aid in the work of WISE, McMillan runs the Arizona-based SPACEWATCH, which will coordinate ground telescope work that will run concurrent with the WISE survey.  Through the WISE mission McMillan hopes it will be scientifically interesting, expanding our knowledge of the evolutionary history of small bodies in the solar system, WISE will potentially find a destination for future exploration, and the mission will locate potentially hazardous NEOs that could hit the Earth at some time.

Beside the University of Arizona's McMillan, working on WISE includes the Principal Investigator to the project, Dr. Edward L. Wright of UCLA, Dr. Peter Eisenhardt, a project scientist at NASA's JPL, and many other NASA scientist and engineers. 

"It's been great.  It's been very collegial.  Everyone's been very thorough," said McMillan about the history of the mission, "There should be a lot of good results coming up."--David Bullock

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