A cutting-edge NASA telescope built by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab has captured its first look at the starry sky – producing a crisp picture of distant stars that has scientists elated.
Launched on Dec. 14, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) took the “First Light” image last week shortly after the machine’s cover was removed. Shown is the Carina constellation in a patch of sky about three times larger than the full moon.
The picture was taken during calibration of the spacecraft’s pointing system. These types of calibrations have gone on since WISE’s blasted into orbit from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California and will continue for a few more days. Then WISE begins its infrared survey of the entire sky, a nine-month process that should produce 2.5 million images.
John Elwell, WISE program manager at the Space Dynamics Lab, said the telescope is already showing things no one has seen before.
“There is a bunch of stuff where scientists are scratching their heads and saying, ‘What is that?’” Elwell said. “It’s been a fantastic initial set of data. Around here, it’s like Christmas every day for these guys. They’re so excited they can’t sleep. It’s elation.”
WISE is designed to scan the sky and find millions of hidden objects, including asteroids, brown dwarf stars and powerful galaxies.
Because the telescope captures infrared light, the images it sends back have no color. Instead, engineers add colors later, providing an idea of what the device is seeing.
To sense the glow of stars and galaxies, the WISE spacecraft cannot give off any heat of its own, requiring that the telescope stay ultra-cold. Some parts of instrument operate at minus 445 degrees Fahrenheit.
The mission concludes when the frozen hydrogen that keeps WISE cold evaporates away in October 2010.
Niel Holt, SDL director, said that his lab will be monitoring the “health and status” of telescope and its software to the end.
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