This Picture Symbolizes The Changing Mission Of One Plucky Spacecraft

by Elizabeth Howell on December 13, 2013

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The Helix nebula is visible in the center of this image, surrounded by tracks of asteroids that are much closer to Earth (yellow dots). Click on the image to see them. The streaks you see are from satellites or cosmic rays. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Helix nebula is visible in the center of this image, surrounded by tracks of asteroids that are much closer to Earth (yellow dots). Click on the image to see them. The streaks you see are from satellites or cosmic rays. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Besides being a darn pretty picture of the Helix nebula, this snapshot is a bit of symbolism for NASA. The spacecraft that nabbed this view is called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. If you look very carefully — you may have to click on the picture for a closer view — you can see little dots showing the paths of asteroids in the picture. (The streaks are cosmic rays and satellites.)

WISE has an interesting history. It began as a telescope seeking secrets of the universe in infrared light, but ran out of coolant in 2010 and was repurposed for asteroid searching under the NEOWISE mission. It wrapped up its mission, was put into hibernation in February 2011, then reactivated this August to look for asteroids again for at least the next three years. You can see some pictures and data WISE collected during its mission below the jump.

It’s a nice way, NASA said, to celebrate the fourth anniversary of WISE’s launch. “WISE is the spacecraft that keeps on giving,” said Ned Wright of UCLA, who was the principal investigator of WISE before it transitioned into NEOWISE.

New results from NASA's NEOWISE survey find that more potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are closely aligned with the plane of our solar system than previous models suggested. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Results from NASA’s NEOWISE survey find that more potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are closely aligned with the plane of our solar system than previous models suggested. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This enormous section of the Milky Way galaxy is a mosaic of images from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus are featured in this 1,000-square degree expanse. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

This enormous section of the Milky Way galaxy is a mosaic of images from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus are featured in this 1,000-square degree expanse. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

This oddly colorful nebula is the supernova remnant IC 443 as seen by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

This oddly colorful nebula is the supernova remnant IC 443 as seen by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Mike Egan December 13, 2013 at 4:27 PM

What is the green ring in the top right hand corner of the top image above?

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE December 13, 2013 at 5:39 PM

It is a lens (or filter) flare in the telescope; if you look closer at the high resolution image, you will see similar artifacts just above the three other bright stars on the right of the picture.

Mike Egan December 14, 2013 at 7:17 AM

Thanks

Basileos December 17, 2013 at 6:31 PM

What are the five yellow dots on the bottom left hand corner of top image perfectly aligned in a row? Also lens flares?

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE December 17, 2013 at 7:07 PM

Like the image caption states, those yellow dots (and elsewhere in the picture) are due to an asteroid moving while WISE was taking several pictures of the scene – astronomers use these pictures to discover and characterize asteroids.

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