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WISE stands for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. It is a NASA funded Explorer mission that provided infrared sensitive data on celestial objects in the night sky. The main spacecraft is an unmanned satellite that has an infrared sensitive camera. Over a period of six months it took an infrared survey of the entire night sky. This yielded countless images provided important data on celestial objects ranging from asteroids to the most luminous distant galaxies.
The WISE telescope represents the latest in infrared imaging technology. The WISE telescope was launched December 14, 2009 using a Delta II rocket into Sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite carries a satellite payload bearing a 40 cm telescope, scan mirror, two-stage solid hydrogen cryostat, and digital infrared camera with up to a megapixel of resolution for each spectrum of infrared radiation. The cryostat is a cooler that helps the telescope adjust for room temperature infrared emissions. It had a life of 10 months and kept the telescope at 15 degrees centigrade above absolute zero.
The telescope was positioned perpendicular to the sun and pointing away from Earth. It was placed right on the day and night border. Following its orbit around the Earth and the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, its expected area coverage was 99 percent of the observable night sky. In the six months of its travel it took images every 11 eleven seconds yielding 1.5 million pictures.
The WISE telescope had several specific scientific objectives. First it was to use infrared detection to find the most luminous galaxies. Second it was to look for stars closest to our sun. It was also to detect main belt asteroids that were 3 km or larger. Most importantly WISE was to observe evidence pointing to the evolution of the universe. This would range from detecting planetary debris to observing star formation in galaxies.
The WISE mission was not a solely NASA project. It also got industry and university support. UCLA, Caltech, and UC Berkley helped provide instrumentation and staff. Companies such as Lockheed Martin and Teledyne also provided instrumentation for the telescope. This partnership shows the importance of aerospace industry and universities in present and future NASA projects. They help to design and implement spacecraft and missions a framework that will be a hallmark in other missions. Radio telescopes like WISE are important in helping us gain more detailed information about the universe around us.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Infrared Astronomy. Listen here, Episode 132: Infrared Astronomy.