By Lisa Grossman, Science News
NASA’s WISE eyes are open.
After a successful launch on December 14, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer is poised to begin the most thorough survey yet of the infrared universe. The telescope’s first image, a field of about 3,000 stars in the constellation Carina, was released January 6 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
From a polar orbit 525 kilometers above Earth, WISE will snap a picture in heat-sensitive wavelengths every 11 seconds during its nine-month mission. At this rate, the telescope will scan the entire sky one and a half times, seeking asteroids, brown dwarfs and distant galaxies.
But the star region captured in the first image was selected because it lacks these features. The image spans a swath of sky about three times the size of the full moon and was chosen for its safety — unusually bright objects could damage the telescope’s detectors if gazed at for too long. Staring at a single, safe patch of sky gives the WISE team a chance to calibrate the spacecraft.
This first image is a good sign of things to come, said WISE mission scientist David Leisawitz of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. It shows that the telescope is in focus and picking up details in infrared wavelengths.
“Every dot in that patch is undoubtedly interesting for some reason or another,” Leisawitz said.
The WISE team will release preliminary survey images in April 2011 and a final atlas and catalog in March 2012. But interested onlookers won’t have to wait that long for more pictures — the team plans to release more images to the public starting in February.
“WISE is now poised to deliver on its promise,” Leisawitz said. “It is a pristine, beautiful new observatory ready to deliver to the astronomical community and the world inspiring new pictures and intriguing new information.”