What NASA's WISE Telescope Might Find

Earth-killing asteroids? Black holes? The agency launches its most ambitious space-mapping satellite to date

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The original launch was postponed several times due to equipment failure and bad weather, but NASA has finally lifted its latest project off the ground. The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) is a solar-powered satellite and infrared telescope that will map the entire sky in greater detail than any device before it--even the famed Hubble Space Telescope. The project will take at least 10 months, with the first images made public by the spring, but science writers are already envisioning what WISE's might find.

  • Killer Asteroids As reported by Robert Block in the Orlando Sentinel, one of WISE's chief goals will be cataloging (relatively) near-earth asteroids with the hopes of avoiding a catastrophic impact in the future: "A killer space rock heading for Earth is not just the stuff of Hollywood action movies and science fiction stories. The threat is real and getting a better handle on near-Earth asteroids could ease some concerns by scientists that NASA had not been doing enough." Meanwhile, Marginal Revolution Alex Tabarrok calls the operation a critical and overlooked part of space exploration:
The example may seem fanciful but [co-blogger Tyler Cowen] and I are quite serious about the importance of asteroid deflection. Large asteroid hits are rare but if a large asteroid does hit, billions will be killed. As a result, sober calculations suggest that the risk of dying from an asteroid strike is about the same as the risk of dying in a commercial airplane crash.
  • Extra Planets The Times Online's Hannah Devlin quotes an astronomer who thinks that WISE could resurrect some out-of-vogue theories: "There was a theory about 20 years ago, based on gravitational observations, that there was a giant planet called Nemesis way out beyond Pluto," said Professor Michael Barlow, a planetary scientist at University College London. The theory has fallen out of favour in recent years but any such planet could be discovered by the new telescope, he said."
  • Closer Stars Technology author and space-travel enthusiast Paul Gilster is most excited about WISE being what he calls a "Brown Dwarf Hunter Extraordinaire," i.e. a machine more capable of finding nearby dark stars than any before: "WISE will be able to detect stars much dimmer than the Sun. These brown dwarfs, many of which have yet to be discovered, should be readily apparent to the WISE instrument, and of course we hope for one that ranks as the closest star to the Earth. And beyond all this, WISE will be able to produce a global map of the galaxy and its associated dust."
  • Black Hole Factories Joe Pappalardo of Popular Mechanics breaks WISE's mission down into three main components, one of which he says is looking for the birthplace of black holes:
When galaxies collide, they sometimes produce large numbers of stars as dust and gasses consolidate. This process produces a lot of infrared light, making these incidents high on the list of interesting things WISE will observe ... There may also be supermassive black holes at the centers of these new galaxies. "
  • Aliens Gizomodo's Adam Frucci hopes that the telescope will be able to spot something that has so far remained elusive to Earth's skywatchers: "It'll be used to detect light- and heat-emitting objects that the Hubble might miss. Such as spaceships, I'll bet!"
  • More to Come Self-described "Bad Astronomer" and Discover blogger Phil Plait is excited for the larger project that WISE is kicking-off: "WISE is a precursor mission to the James Webb Space Telescope, a huge infrared observatory that will be to the mid infrared sky what Hubble is to the visible, near IR, and near UV. Surveying the entire sky will enable astronomers to make quite the wish list for JWST once it's up and running in 2014.
  • High Resolution Images At the blog Music of the Spheres, The Flying Singer explains why the WISE mission will be such a drastic improvement over NASA's previous attempts to map the sky: "WISE will perform an infrared all-sky survey at much higher resolution and sensitivity than any previous IR surveys."
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