Image: March of asteroids across dying star

Dec 13, 2013
Credit: JPL/NASA

(Phys.org) —In an unexpected juxtaposition of cosmic objects that are actually quite far from each other, a newly released image from NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) shows a dying star, called the Helix nebula, surrounded by the tracks of asteroids. The nebula is far outside our solar system, while the asteroid tracks are inside our solar system.

The portrait, discovered by chance in a search for asteroids, comes at a time when the mission's team is celebrating its fourth launch anniversary—and new lease on life. In August, NASA decided to bring WISE out of hibernation to search for more asteroids. The mission was rechristened NEOWISE, formerly the name of the -hunting portion of WISE.

"I was recently looking for asteroids in images collected in 2010, and this picture jumped out at me," said Amy Mainzer, the NEOWISE principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "I recognized the Helix nebula right away."

WISE launched into the morning skies above Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California on Dec. 14, 2009. By early 2011, it had finished scanning the entire sky twice in infrared light, snapping pictures of nearly one billion objects, including remote galaxies, stars and asteroids. Upon completing its main goals, WISE was put to sleep. Now, engineers are bringing the spacecraft out of slumber, as it cools back down to the chilly temperatures required for infrared observations. The spacecraft no longer has onboard coolant, but two of its infrared channels still work and can be used for asteroid hunting.

"WISE is the spacecraft that keeps on giving," said Ned Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator of WISE before it transitioned into NEOWISE.

In the Helix nebula image, infrared wavelengths of light have been assigned different colors, with longer wavelengths being red, and shorter, blue. The bluish-green and red materials are expelled remnants of what was once a star similar to our sun. As the star aged, it puffed up and its outer layers sloughed off. The burnt-out core of the star, called a white dwarf, is heating the expelled material, inducing it to glow with . Over time, the brilliant object, known as a planetary nebula, will fade away, leaving just the white dwarf.

Skirting around the edges of the Helix nebula are the footprints of asteroids marching across the field of view. Each set of yellow dots is a series of pictures of an asteroid. As the asteroid moved, WISE snapped several pictures, all of which are represented in this view. Scientists use these data to discover and characterize asteroids, including those that pass relatively close to Earth, called near-Earth asteroids. Infrared data are particularly useful for finding the smaller, darker asteroids that are more difficult to see with visible light, and for measuring the asteroids' sizes.

The other streaks in the picture are Earth-orbiting satellites and cosmic rays.

Explore further: Is the universe finite or infinite?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Asteroid zips by Orion nebula

Aug 26, 2013

(Phys.org) —This image shows the potentially hazardous near-Earth object 1998 KN3 as it zips past a cloud of dense gas and dust near the Orion nebula. NEOWISE, the asteroid-hunting portion of the Wide-field ...

Image: WISE catalog just got wiser

Nov 15, 2013

NASA's WISE mission has released a new and improved atlas and catalog brimming with data on three-quarters of a billion objects detected during two full scans of the sky.

'Witch Head' brews baby stars

Oct 31, 2013

(Phys.org) —A witch appears to be screaming out into space in this new image from NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The infrared portrait shows the Witch Head nebula, named after its ...

Image: Asteroid caught marching across Tadpole Nebula

Sep 28, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- This infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, showcases the Tadpole Nebula, a star-forming hub in the Auriga constellation about 12,000 light-years from Earth. ...

NASA's NEOWISE completes scan for asteroids and comets

Feb 01, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's NEOWISE mission has completed its survey of small bodies, asteroids and comets, in our solar system. The mission's discoveries of previously unknown objects include 20 comets, more ...

Recommended for you

Is the universe finite or infinite?

19 hours ago

Two possiblities exist: either the Universe is finite and has a size, or it's infinite and goes on forever. Both possibilities have mind-bending implications.

'Teapot' nova begins to wane

21 hours ago

A star, or nova, has appeared in the constellation of Sagittarius and, even though it is now waning, it is still bright enough to be visible in the sky over Perth through binoculars or a telescope.

Dark matter is darker than once thought

22 hours ago

This panel of images represents a study of 72 colliding galaxy clusters conducted by a team of astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope. The research sets new limits on ...

Galaxy clusters collide—dark matter still a mystery

Mar 26, 2015

When galaxy clusters collide, their dark matters pass through each other, with very little interaction. Deepening the mystery, a study by scientists at EPFL and the University of Edinburgh challenges the ...

Using 19th century technology to time travel to the stars

Mar 26, 2015

In the late 19th century, astronomers developed the technique of capturing telescopic images of stars and galaxies on glass photographic plates. This allowed them to study the night sky in detail. Over 500,000 ...

User comments : 0

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.