WISE telescope vision artists conception

This artist’s conception shows the WISE telescope mapping the whole sky in infrared. The mission will unveil hundreds of thousands of asteroids, and hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies. Credit: NASA

NASA is getting ready to launch a new space telescope that will scan the entire sky for the infrared glow of hidden asteroids and stars that are close to Earth but too dim to be easily seen.

Unlike telescopes that look for visible light, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE telescope, will pick up infrared light. All objects that have any heat give off infrared light — and that includes things we normally think of as being cold. WISE will be able to see objects at a wide range of temperatures, from as cold as liquid nitrogen to as hot as molten aluminum, according to NASA.

To make sure WISE isn’t blinded by its own heat, it has to be kept supercold. It will work inside a giant thermos bottle called a cryostat, and hydrogen ice will keep the telescope at -438 degrees Fahrenheit. “We have now 40 pounds of solid hydrogen in our cryostat,” says William Irace, WISE project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. “Some people think it looks like R2D2 without wheels. It’s kind of a funny-looking thing.”

The funny-looking thing is about the size of a polar bear. A rocket will blast it into orbit around the Earth. NASA is targeting launch for Monday morning.

Once it reaches orbit, WISE will spend about six months taking over 1 million images that will be stitched together to create a panoramic, infrared view of the entire sky.

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