WISE has launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, 14 Dec 2009
WISE has launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, 14 Dec 2009

U.S. space agency NASA has launched a new space telescope that will allow scientists to look at the universe closer than ever before.  NASA's officials say the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, known as WISE, will help them to discover, photograph and research thousands of previously undetected stars, galaxies and potentially threatening asteroids. 

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered what is out there?  Well, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer is on a mission to find out.  Using a 41-centimeter telescope and infrared detectors, the spacecraft will spend the next nine months taking inventory of the cosmos. 

WISE Deputy Project Scientist Amy Mainzer explains the mission's all-sky survey, which will provide what she calls a "Google map to the universe."

"It is literally looking everywhere, in the whole sky, and it will give us a map that we can use to find the most interesting places to look," said Amy Mainzer. "That is what we need to be able to use our big telescopes efficiently.  And also, too, if you want to find the most rare and unusual types of objects in the universe, you need to look everywhere to be able to find them."

Mainzer says the panoramic picture of the sky WISE will provide is like a wide-angle lens for scientists, who will then use space telescopes, such as the Hubble and the upcoming James Webb, to zoom in on points of interest.
Researchers already have a good idea about some of the things WISE will find, such as ultra-luminous galaxies, thousands of previously unseen stars and about 100,000 undetected asteroids.
While Mainzer says most of these orbiting rocks will pose no harm to Earth, she does expect to find at least several-hundred new "near-Earth objects," or asteroids that may one day threaten civilization.

"Now, that does not necessarily mean that they will hit the Earth at any time, but it is possible," she said. "And, because of that, we would like to know more about the near-Earth object population."

WISE principal investigator Edward Wright says while scientists may not need to know the objects' size, composition and location right now, gathering such information is a necessary step toward future disaster prevention.

"So far, we do not know of anything on a collision course," said Edward Wright. "If we found out with enough warning, then it would be possible to launch a space mission and deflect the asteroid so it would not hit the earth, though we would need a lot of warning."

Asteroids are just one of the estimated one-million never-before-seen objects scientists anticipate WISE to uncover.  But Mainzer and Wright agree the researchers' real expectation is to find the unexpected.
The last time the sky was mapped in infrared was in 1983 by the Infrared Astronomy Satellite.  Though revolutionary for its time, the craft's digital camera had only 62 pixels.  By contrast, the WISE camera has four million pixels, allowing it to photograph the universe with extraordinary sensitivity and in great detail.
NASA officials said Infrared technology will allow WISE to see the radiation emitted by otherwise invisible cool, dark objects.
Wright says WISE has been under consideration for 12 years, and has cost about $320 million to build.