NASA launches spacecraft that will map stars, galaxies, asteroids

NASA launched a spacecraft today that it hopes can map the entire sky in infrared light.

The spacecraft, dubbed Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, lifted off this morning at 9:09 a.m. EST from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a Delta II rocket. The rocket carried the craft into a polar orbit 326 miles above Earth.

WISE, which will circle the Earth over the poles, is expected to give astronomers an infrared road map to the heavens. the spacecraft will scan the entire sky one and a half times during its nine-month mission, looking to uncover hidden cosmic objects, including the coolest stars, darkest asteroids and the most luminous galaxies, according to NASA.

"WISE thundered overhead, lighting up the pre-dawn skies," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. "All systems are looking good, and we are on our way to seeing the entire infrared sky better than ever before."

NASA explained that nearly everything in the universe glows in infrared, which means WISE should be able to catalog everything from near-Earth asteroids, distant galaxies and planet-forming disks. NASA scientists expect the spacecraft to record the existence and exact placement of hundreds of millions of objects in the WISE atlas.

The space agency reported that all has gone as planned with the mission so far.

Engineers recorded a signal coming from WISE just 10 seconds after it separated from the Delta II rocket this morning. And just three minutes later, the spacecraft oriented itself with the sun and began using its own solar panels to generate power.

Less than 20 minutes after orientating itself, WISE opened the valves on its cryostat, which is a chamber of super-cold hydrogen ice that cools the craft's instruments. NASA noted that because the spacecraft's instruments detect objects' infrared, or heat, signatures, the instruments must be kept at very cold temperatures. Its coldest detectors are at least minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit, noted NASA.

"Now we're ready to see the infrared glow from hundreds of thousands of asteroids, and hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies," said Ned Wright of UCLA, the mission's principal investigator, in a statement.

The spacecraft was originally scheduled to launch last Friday but was delayed until this morning because of what NASA called an "anomaly in the motion of a booster steering engine." Engineers reported replaced a suspect component in the engine to fix the problem.

A little more than a year ago, NASA launched the IBEX spacecraft on a mission to map and capture images of the edge of the solar system.

The IBEX spacecraft will focus its attention on the edge of the solar system where the hot solar wind slams into the cold expanse of space, according to NASA. The IBEX images hopefully will help scientists figure out the interaction between our sun and the Milky Way galaxy.

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