NASA's WISE infrared satellite to reveal new galaxies, stars, asteroids

December 03, 2009

An unmanned NASA satellite will soon survey the entire sky to discover millions of uncharted stars and galaxies, asteroids, and planetary "construction zones," providing valuable new information on our solar system, the Milky Way and the universe.

NASA'S Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), scheduled to launch from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on Dec. 9 or shortly after, will map the sky at four infrared wavelengths -- invisible to the unaided human eye -- with a sensitivity hundreds of times greater than its predecessors. WISE will catalogue hundreds of millions of objects.

"WISE will survey a large part of the universe that has never been surveyed before," said WISE's principal investigator, Edward L. (Ned) Wright, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy who holds the university's David Saxon Presidential Chair in Physics. "I expect that what we find will be amazing. There is still so much we don't know. The most exciting discovery probably will be something we don't even realize is out there."

WISE may find elusive brown dwarf stars that are perhaps closer to the sun than even our nearest known neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which is four light-years away. The coldest stars, brown dwarfs are the missing link between giant gas planets like Jupiter and small, low-mass stars; they are roughly the size of Jupiter but with a much larger mass. Brown dwarfs can be detected best in the infrared, but even within the infrared, finding them can be very difficult.

In contrast to a star like our sun, which burns hydrogen into helium in a nuclear fusion reaction in its core, brown dwarfs gradually cool off without that source of energy. The age of a brown dwarf is calculated by comparing its temperature to its mass.

"We should find several hundred brown dwarfs that are currently unknown," said Wright, who often teaches UCLA undergraduate and graduate cosmology courses. "Many brown dwarfs are too cool to be detected with visible light. WISE will see most of them. It would be quite exciting to know how many brown dwarfs there are and how old they are. We expect to learn new information about how stars form within the Milky Way and the history of star formation.

"We know that many stars have planets," he added. "Follow-up observations with large telescopes like the future James Webb Space Telescope could well find large planets around the brown dwarfs discovered by WISE."

"Brown dwarfs are lurking all around us," said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We believe there are about as many brown dwarfs as stars in the universe, but we haven't found them yet because we haven't looked everywhere in the infrared the way WISE will."

Like a powerful set of night-vision goggles, WISE will survey the cosmos with infrared detectors about 300 times more sensitive than those used in previous survey missions. Wright said that 99 percent of the sky has not been observed yet with the kind of sensitivity that WISE has.

About 10 feet tall and weighing more than 1,400 pounds, WISE will orbit the Earth over the poles, about 325 miles above the surface, and will operate for at least seven months, with data expected four times a day. NASA's JPL will manage the mission, with the JPL's William Irace serving as project manager.

WISE will also detect swirling disks -- the remains of planet formation around stars. Wright expects to see at least thousands of proto-planetary discs around stars, presumably condensing into planetary systems.

"That will be an important aspect of what WISE will do," Wright said. "We will be able to study the interstellar dust clouds in our Milky Way and produce spectacular images of how the dust is distributed around the Milky Way. We will be able to see many in the Milky Way galaxy, and we will be able to study star-forming regions in nearby galaxies and star formation in distant galaxies."

Galaxies in the distant, or early, universe were much brighter and dustier than our Milky Way. Their dusty coats light up in infrared wavelengths.

WISE will find colliding galaxies that emit more light, specifically infrared light, than any other galaxies in the universe, Wright said. Much of galaxy formation occurs when galaxies collide, producing an enormous burst of star formation and very bright infrared sources, he said.

WISE is expected to produce more than 1 million images, from which hundreds of millions of space objects will be catalogued.

As principal investigator, Wright led the team that proposed the mission in 1998, and he oversaw the design of the satellite and the WISE budget.

The WISE data will help answer fundamental questions about how solar systems and galaxies form.

"WISE will create a legacy that endures for decades," Eisenhardt said.

Wright seems not to mind that he will be working long hours over the holidays.

"The Christmas present I want this year," Wright said, "is WISE data."

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory of Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages the JPL for NASA.
-end-
More information is available at www.nasa.gov/wise and http://wise.astro.ucla.edu.

UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 323 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Five alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom or follow us on Twitter.

University of California - Los Angeles

Related Star Formation Articles from Brightsurf:

Low-metallicity globular star cluster challenges formation models
On the outskirts of the nearby Andromeda Galaxy, researchers have unexpectedly discovered a globular cluster (GC) - a massive congregation of relic stars - with a very low abundance of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium (known as its metallicity), according to a new study.

Astronomers turn up the heavy metal to shed light on star formation
Astronomers from The University of Western Australia's node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) have developed a new way to study star formation in galaxies from the dawn of time to today.

New observations of black hole devouring a star reveal rapid disk formation
When a star passes too close to a supermassive black hole, tidal forces tear it apart, producing a bright flare of radiation as material from the star falls into the black hole.

How galaxies die: New insights into the quenching of star formation
Astronomers studying galaxy evolution have long struggled to understand what causes star formation to shut down in massive galaxies.

The cosmic commute towards star and planet formation
Interconnected gas flows reveal how star-forming gas is assembled in galaxies.

Star formation project maps nearby interstellar clouds
Astronomers have captured new, detailed maps of three nearby interstellar gas clouds containing regions of ongoing high-mass star formation.

Scientists discover pulsating remains of a star in an eclipsing double star system
Scientists from the University of Sheffield have discovered a pulsating ancient star in a double star system, which will allow them to access important information on the history of how stars like our Sun evolve and eventually die.

Distant milky way-like galaxies reveal star formation history of the universe
Thousands of galaxies are visible in this radio image of an area in the Southern Sky, made with the MeerKAT telescope.

Cascades of gas around young star indicate early stages of planet formation
What does a gestating baby planet look like? New research in Nature by a team including Carnegie's Jaehan Bae investigated the effects of three planets in the process of forming around a young star, revealing the source of their atmospheres.

Massive exoplanet orbiting tiny star challenges planet formation theory
Astronomers have discovered a giant Jupiter-like exoplanet in an unlikely location -- orbiting a small red dwarf star.

Read More: Star Formation News and Star Formation Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.