Astounding views from WISE

NASA has released a set of startling photographs taken by WISE, the orbiting infrared telescope built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory of Utah State University, Logan.

The images, made available today (Wednesday), show the great galaxy in Andromeda as nobody ever saw it before, looking like swirling orange icing on some invisible Danish; a comet with a long glowing tail; and a wild, chaotic cloud of gas and dust where stars are born.

WISE, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, is a satellite making an infrared light survey of the heavens. A USU Internet site notes that the university “built, tested and calibrated the WISE science instrument” under contract with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. Its precision is guaranteed by cooling the optics to about 11 Kelvin (-439.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and the detectors to about 7.3 Kelvin (-446.26 degrees F), the university adds. The coldest temperature theoretically possible is 0 Kelvin, or -459.4 degrees F. At that point all motion would stop and heat could not exist.

The six-foot, 800-pound satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Dec. 14, 2009, and should operate around 10 months, until its coolant runs out. In the meantime, it will catalog “hundreds of millions of astronomical objects including many asteroids,” USU adds.

[WISE made this image of infrared readings from Comet Siding Spring. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA]

A comet called Siding Spring fell under WISE’s watchful lens, providing a false-color image that shows a vivid streak of a tail flowing from its head, where blazes a brilliant yellow-white pinprick. Australian astronomers discovered the comet in 2007.

The photo should help scientists determine Siding Spring’s “size, composition, reflectivity, and the size and makeup of the dust particles in its coma (the hazy cloud surrounding its nucleus) and its tail,” says a NASA release.

[The star-forming region of a distant star cluster, NGC 3603, as seen by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA]

Dramatic events are happening in a star cluster named NGC 3603. Within a gigantic cocoon of gas and dust, new stars are forming. The view from WISE hints at the tremendous forces at work. NASA describes it this way:

“The cluster contains some of the most massive stars known. Winds and radiation from the stars are evaporating and dispersing the cloud material from which they formed, warming the cold dust and gas surrounding the central nebula. This greenish “halo” of warm cloud material is seen best by WISE due to its large field of view and improved sensitivity over past all-sky infrared surveys.

“These WISE observations provide circumstantial evidence that the massive stars in the center of the cluster triggered the formation of younger stars in the halo, which can be seen as red dots. The dust at the center of the cluster is very hot, producing copious amounts of infrared light, which results in the bright, yellow cores of the nebulosity.

“Ultimately, this turbulent region will be blasted apart by supernova explosions. Other star-forming clouds in the Milky Way have experienced such eruptions, as evidenced by their pockmarked clouds of expanding cavities and bubbles.”

[M31, the Andromeda Galaxy by WISE. Several of the photographs show different aspects of the galaxy; this one highlights hot dust lanes throughout M31. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA]

WISE picked out dust formations in the Andromeda Galaxy, showing how hot dust “heated by newborn stars, traces the spidery arms all the way to the center of the galaxy.” These stars are forming along circular lanes, spirals that connect the nucleus with regions far toward the edge.

The views and the 2.5 million others that will be beamed down are opening a new window into the universe. NASA and the Utahns who work on WISE have every reason to be proud.

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