NASA Set to Launch WISE, With Input From U.Va. Astronomer

December 9, 2009 — NASA is set to launch into space, possibly Friday, a new telescope that will survey the entire sky in infrared light. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, is expected to unveil hundreds of thousands of asteroids, and hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies during its nine-month mission.

"WISE was designed to detect the most luminous galaxies in the distant reaches of the universe while at the same time having unique sensitivity to brown dwarfs, 'failed' stars of very low mass that cool to well below room temperature over time," said U.Va. astronomer Mike Skrutskie, a member for 12 years of the WISE science team that planned and designed the $320 million mission. "There is a good chance that WISE will find one of these brown dwarfs lurking closer than the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, revolutionizing our view of the sun's neighbors."

Skrutskie specializes in designing and constructing infrared cameras and spectrographs, devices that are able to penetrate cosmic haze and detect and measure heat radiation coming from stars and other bodies.

WISE will look at the full sky in the infrared, at wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Because the Earth's atmosphere absorbs most of these wavelengths, the infrared view is best from space.

WISE is scheduled for launch aboard a Delta II rocket on Friday at 9:09 a.m. EST from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. During its flight over the Earth's poles, it will scan the full sky one-and-a-half times. The instrument will make visible previously hidden cosmic objects, including the coolest and faintest stars, dark asteroids and the most luminous galaxies.

WISE will catalog hundreds of millions of objects as it surveys the entire sky at four infrared wavelengths. Its sensitivity for imaging faint objects in the infrared is hundreds of thousands of times greater than predecessor instruments. The data it gathers will serve as navigation charts for missions by other instruments, including the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, which will train their sights on the most interesting WISE finds for sharper views.

"Ultimately, WISE produces a catalog of sources and images covering the entire sky and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection," Skrutskie said. "WISE thus becomes one of several projects that have enabled 'desktop' astronomy, here for the first time at wavelengths deep in the infrared.

"History has shown that such databases are packed with scientific surprises unanticipated in advance of the mission. In some sense, the most exciting aspect of WISE is the numerous discoveries we cannot yet predict."

Since coming to U.Va. in 2001, Skrutskie has headed a highly respected program in telescope instrument design that attracts high-quality graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Instruments from his lab have been attached to some of the world's best telescopes, such as the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and the 2.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, as well as to several smaller telescopes, including the 31-inch telescope at U.Va.'s Fan Mountain Observatory.

— By Fariss Samarrai