NASA launched Monday a new breed of satellite called WISE on a mission to orbit Earth and map the skies to find elusive cosmic objects, including potentially dangerous asteroids.
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) will use infrared rays to map the locations and sizes of roughly 200,000 asteroids and give scientists a clearer idea of how many space rocks loom and what danger they pose.
"When we find them, we will give the information to policy-makers to decide what to do to try to prevent these near-Earth asteroids colliding with our planet," NASA public affairs officer J. D. Harrington told AFP.
|This NASA handout photo shows the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket with NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, satellite as it launches|
The launch, which had been delayed from Friday after problems were discovered in a rocket booster steering engine, went ahead flawlessly at 6:09 am (1409 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
WISE, which has been called "the most sensitive set of wide-angle infrared goggles ever," will orbit 300 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth's surface for 10 months as it hunts for and collects data on dim objects such as dust clouds, brown dwarf stars and asteroids in the dark spaces between planets and stars.
The satellite will map the cosmos in infrared light, covering the whole sky one-and-a-half times -- one orbit of Earth will take six months -- and snapping pictures of everything from near-Earth asteroids to faraway galaxies bursting with new stars.
"The last time we mapped the whole sky at these particular infrared wavelengths was 26 years ago," Edward Wright of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), who is the principal investigator of the mission, said on NASA's website.
"Infrared technology has come a long way since then. The old all-sky infrared pictures were like impressionist paintings -- now, we'll have images that look like actual photographs."
Harrington explained that previous infrared satellites had only 62 pixels per "camera", while WISE has a pixel capacity of four million, which will make for much sharper images.
WISE is expected to detect infrared emissions from the most active star-forming regions, which would help scientists understand how rapidly stars are formed during galactic collisions.
It will map "failed stars" called brown dwarfs in the Milky Way, and help to improve understanding about the structure and evolution of Earth's galaxy.
Scientists also expect the satellite to make some new discoveries.
"When you look at the sky with new sensitivity and a new wavelength band, like WISE is going to do, you're going to find new things that you didn't know were out there," Wright said.
After a month during which scientists will check out and calibrate equipment on WISE, the satellite will begin in January snapping pictures every eight seconds as it orbits Earth.
It will pause four times a day to download the collected data to a processor.
The data will be sent to a depository and analyzed by scientists before any images are made public.
"We have to make sure... that the data is sound, before we release anything," Harrington said, adding that NASA hopes to make the first pictures from WISE public in the spring.