Ned Wright: ‘WISE space telescope will make an atlas of the universe’

WISE will orbit the Earth through 2010 and scan the entire sky in infrared light.

How can you create an atlas of the entire universe, in wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye? In December of 2009, NASA launched a space telescope – called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE – that is expected to do just that.

Ned Wright: What WISE is trying to do is to make an atlas of the universe.

Ned Wright is principal investigator of the WISE space telescope. Dr. Wright said that WISE will orbit the Earth through 2010 and scan the entire sky in infrared light.

Ned Wright: By looking in the infrared, we can see room temperature objects like asteroids. We can also see through clouds of dust.

Dr. Wright said the WISE space telescope will examine dusty regions in space where stars are being born.

Ned Wright: The regions where stars are forming most rapidly are in things called ultra-luminous infrared galaxies. Ultra-luminous infrared galaxies are making thousands of solar masses of new stars per year.

For comparison, Wright said that our Milky Way galaxy creates only about one solar mass of new stars per year. What’s more, Dr. Wright said WISE is expected to discover other objects, such as new asteroids and brown dwarfs, too dark and cold to be seen yet.

Ned Wright: WISE will look at everything in the universe. And this is really the most important thing about it. So it’s a legacy. It’s like a library in which people can study for years after the mission is done.

Dr. Wright spoke more about how the Wide field Infrared Survey Explorer actually works.

Ned Wright: WISE is using some fairly newly developed detector arrays. It’s very similar to the arrays that are in digital cameras. But they work in the infrared wavelengths instead of optical wavelengths. It has four different arrays, so it’s looking at four colors at once, one more than the red, green and blue that are used for color images. It will be taking four-color image sets. Each image has one million pixels, which is the reason WISE is much better than previous surveys, because the number of pixels available in these digital arrays has been growing so rapidly over the last few decades.

Ultra-luminous infrared galaxies, said Wright, would be much brighter to us on Earth if they weren’t obscured by space dust.

Ned Wright: The infrared radiation is the only part of the radiation that gets out, because the dust clouds in which the stars are forming really absorbs all the optical light. So by very luminous, I mean, luminosity of an object is the difference between say ten-watt light bulb and a thousand watt light bulb. So these are the highest wattage light bulbs in the universe.

Jorge Salazar