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

December 4, 2009 By Stuart Wolpert
Infrared image of UCLA professor and WISE principal investigator Edward L. (Ned) Wright

( -- Data from the satellite, says principal investigator and UCLA professor Edward Wright, will help scientists answer fundamental questions about the history of our solar system, the Milky Way and the univese.

An unmanned 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 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."

NASA's WISE spacecraf

"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 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 .

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."

Provided by University of California Los Angeles (news : web)

Explore further: NASA approves construction of satellite to scan galaxies

Related Stories

NASA approves construction of satellite to scan galaxies

October 19, 2006

After eight years of study, NASA has approved the construction of an unmanned satellite that will scan the entire sky in infrared light to reveal nearby cool stars, planetary "construction zones" and the brightest galaxies ...

NASA OKs construction of satellite

October 25, 2006

NASA has approved construction of a satellite that will scan the entire sky in infrared light to detect cool stars and bright galaxies.

NASA's Wise Gets Ready to Survey the Whole Sky (w/ Video)

November 17, 2009

( -- NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or Wise, is chilled out, sporting a sunshade and getting ready to roll. NASA's newest spacecraft is scheduled to roll to the pad on Friday, Nov. 20, its last stop ...

Recommended for you

Rosetta captures comet outburst

August 25, 2016

In unprecedented observations made earlier this year, Rosetta unexpectedly captured a dramatic comet outburst that may have been triggered by a landslide.

ALMA finds unexpected trove of gas around larger stars

August 25, 2016

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) surveyed dozens of young stars—some Sun-like and others approximately double that size—and discovered that the larger variety have surprisingly ...

35 years on, Voyager's legacy continues at Saturn

August 25, 2016

Saturn, with its alluring rings and numerous moons, has long fascinated stargazers and scientists. After an initial flyby of Pioneer 11 in 1979, humanity got a second, much closer look at this complex planetary system in ...

Rocky planet found orbiting habitable zone of nearest star

August 24, 2016

An international team of astronomers including Carnegie's Paul Butler has found clear evidence of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Solar System. The new world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (5) Dec 04, 2009
The Answers To Fundamental Questions . . .

. . . are already available in experimental data on nuclear rest masses and abundances of elements and isotopes in meteorites, planets, the Moon, the solar wind, the solar photosphere, and solar flares.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA PI for Apollo
Emeritus Professor of
Nuclear & Space Science
not rated yet Dec 04, 2009
Some other comments on WISE at

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.