Science + Technology

NASA Approves Construction of Satellite to Scan Nearest Stars, Brightest Galaxies; UCLA Astronomer Serves as Principal Investigator


After eightyears of study, NASA has approved the construction of an unmanned satellitethat will scan the entire sky in infrared light to reveal nearby cool stars,planetary "construction zones" and the brightest galaxies in the universe.Launch of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) — the second phase ofthe WISE mission — is scheduled for late 2009. The satellite will orbit theEarth and operate for at least seven months, with data expected a few times aday.

Edward L.(Ned) Wright, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, is WISE's principalinvestigator. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena will manage the mission, with JPL'sWilliam Irace as project manager.

Like a powerful setof night-vision goggles, WISE will survey the cosmos with infrared detectors500 times more sensitive than those used in previous survey missions.

"This mission hasincredible power for discovery," Wright said. "I expect that what we find willbe amazing. There is still so much we don't know."

Wright said that99 percent of the sky has not been observed yet with this kind of sensitivity,and that the survey should be able to find and observe at least 100 milliongalaxies and hundreds of nearby cool stars that are currently unknown.

"Approximatelytwo-thirds of nearby stars are too cool to be detected with visible light,"Wright said. "WISE will see most of them."

He added thatproto-planetary discs around stars presumably condensing into a planetarysystem show up in the infrared.

"Several havebeen detected, and we will be able to see many more in the Milky Way galaxy,"Wright said. "In addition, we will be able to study star-forming regions innearby galaxies and star formation in distant galaxies."

Such extensive sky coverage means that themission will find and catalogue all sorts of celestial eccentrics, includingperhaps elusive brown dwarfs close to the Earth. Brown dwarfs, the missing linkbetween gas giant planets like Jupiter and small, low-mass stars, are failedstars about the size of Jupiter, with a much larger mass. They can be detectedbest in the infrared, but even within the infrared are very difficult todetect.

"Brown dwarfs are lurking all around us,"said Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for WISE and JPL. "We believe thereare more brown dwarfs than stars in the universe, but we haven't found thembecause they are faint."

Galaxies in thedistant, or early, universe were much brighter and dustier than our Milky Waygalaxy. Their dusty coats light up in infrared wavelengths.

"It's hard to findthe most energetic galaxies if you don't know where to look," Eisenhardt said."We're going to look everywhere."

WISE will alsoprovide a complete inventory of dusty planet-forming discs around nearby stars,and find colliding galaxies that emit more light, specifically infrared light,than any other galaxies in the universe. WISE is expected to produce more than1 million images, from which hundreds of millions of space objects will becatalogued.

WISE may be able to confirm the existence of dark energy, whichscientists believe comprises more than 70 percent of the universe, and whichAlbert Einstein postulated in 1917. Einstein later believed that to be aserious blunder, but it looks like he was correct, Wright said.

The cryogenicinstrument will be built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan,Utah, and the spacecraft will be built by BallAerospace and Technologies Corporation in Boulder,Colo. Science operations and data processingwill take place at the JPL/Caltech Infrared Processing and Analysis Center.

Wright; JohnMather, chief scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA's CosmicBackground Explorer (COBE) team were jointly awarded the 2006 Gruber CosmologyPrize in August for their research confirming that our universe was born in ahot Big Bang; Mather also shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. Theinstruments aboard COBE, launched in 1989, looked back over 13 billion years tothe early universe. COBE showed that the young universe was hot, dense andalmost uniform; that it contained weak fluctuations or lumps that grew into thegalaxies and stars we see today; that these fluctuations were the consequenceof a hot Big Bang, and that the universe is filled with diffuse radiation frompreviously unknown galaxies.

For moreinformation about the WISE mission, visit

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