They’re some of the most striking and revealing space images you’ll ever see: a sample of fresh shots from the NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).
This shot from NASA's WISE highlights the dust that speckles the Andromeda galaxy's spiral arms. It shows light seen by the longest-wavelength infrared detectors on WISE (12-micron light has been color coded orange, and 22-micron light, red). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
WISE began its scan of the entire sky in infrared light on Jan. 14 and has since sent back more than 250,000 raw, infrared images. Wednesday, NASA released four processed images illustrating sample of the mission's targets—a comet, a bursting star-forming cloud, the Andromeda galaxy and a faraway cluster of hundreds of galaxies.
The images are online here.
"WISE has worked superbly," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These first images are proving the spacecraft's secondary mission of helping to track asteroids, comets and other stellar objects will be just as critically important as its primary mission of surveying the entire sky in infrared."
During its survey, the mission is expected to find perhaps dozens of comets, including some that ride along in orbits that take them somewhat close to Earth's path around the sun. WISE aims to help unravel clues locked inside comets about how our solar system came to be.
"We've got a candy store of images coming down from space," said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator for WISE. "Everyone has their favorite flavors, and we've got them all."
One image shows a bright and choppy star-forming region called NGC 3603, lying 20,000 light-years away in the Carina spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy. This star-forming factory is churning out batches of new stars, some of which are monstrously massive and hotter than the sun. The hot stars warm the surrounding dust clouds, causing them to glow at infrared wavelengths.
WISE expects to see hundreds of similar star-making regions in our galaxy.
The image of the Andromeda spiral galaxy, about 2.5 million light-years away, highlights WISE's wide field of view—it covers an area larger than 100 full moons and even shows other smaller galaxies near Andromeda, all belonging to our "local group" of more than about 50 galaxies. WISE will capture the entire local group.
"All these pictures tell a story about our dusty origins and destiny," said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "WISE sees dusty comets and rocky asteroids tracing the formation and evolution of our solar system. We can map thousands of forming and dying solar systems across our entire galaxy. We can see patterns of star formation across other galaxies, and waves of star-bursting galaxies in clusters millions of light years away."
Other mission targets include comets, asteroids and cool stars called brown dwarfs. WISE discovered its first near-Earth asteroid on Jan. 12 and first comet on Jan. 22. The mission will scan the sky one-and-a-half times by October. At that point, the frozen coolant needed to chill its instruments will be depleted.
JPL manages WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program, which NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, built the science instrument, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder,Colo., built the spacecraft. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
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