PASADENA, Calif. — A diverse cast of cosmic characters is showcased in the first survey images NASA released Wednesday from its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.
Since WISE began its scan of the entire sky in infrared light on Jan. 14, the space telescope has beamed back more than a quarter of a million raw, infrared images. Four new, processed pictures illustrate a sampling of the mission’s targets — a wispy comet, a bursting star-forming cloud, the grand Andromeda galaxy and a faraway cluster of hundreds of galaxies. The images are online at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE/multimedia/images20100216.html .
"WISE has worked superbly," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These first images are proving the spacecraft’s secondary mission of helping to track asteroids, comets and other stellar objects will be just as critically important as its primary mission of surveying the entire sky in infrared."
One image shows the beauty of a comet called Siding Spring. As the comet parades toward the sun, it sheds dust that glows in infrared light visible to WISE. The comet’s tail, which stretches about 10 million miles, looks like a streak of red paint. A bright star appears below it in blue.
"We’ve got a candy store of images coming down from space," said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator for WISE. "Everyone has their favorite flavors, and we’ve got them all."
During its survey, the mission is expected to find perhaps dozens of comets, including some that ride along in orbits that take them somewhat close to Earth’s path around the sun. WISE will help unravel clues locked inside comets about how our solar system came to be.
Another image shows a bright and choppy star-forming region called NGC 3603, lying 20,000 light-years away in the Carina spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy. This star-forming factory is churning out batches of new stars, some of which are monstrously massive and hotter than the sun. The hot stars warm the surrounding dust clouds, causing them to glow at infrared wavelengths.
WISE will see hundreds of similar star-making regions in our galaxy, helping astronomers piece together a picture of how stars are born. The observations also provide an important link to understanding violent episodes of star formation in distant galaxies. Because NGC 3603 is much closer, astronomers use it as a lab to probe the same type of action that is taking place billions of light-years away.
Traveling farther out from our Milky Way, the third new image shows our nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda spiral galaxy. Andromeda is a bit bigger than our Milky Way and about 2.5 million light-years away. The new picture highlights WISE’s wide field of view — it covers an area larger than 100 full moons and even shows other smaller galaxies near Andromeda, all belonging to our "local group" of more than about 50 galaxies. WISE will capture the entire local group.
The fourth WISE picture is even farther out, in a region of hundreds of galaxies all bound together into one family. Called the Fornax cluster, these galaxies are 60 million light-years from Earth. The mission’s infrared views reveal both stagnant and active galaxies, providing a census of data on an entire galactic community.
"All these pictures tell a story about our dusty origins and destiny," said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "WISE sees dusty comets and rocky asteroids tracing the formation and evolution of our solar system. We can map thousands of forming and dying solar systems across our entire galaxy. We can see patterns of star formation across other galaxies, and waves of star-bursting galaxies in clusters millions of light years away."
The immense Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or simply M31, is captured in full in this new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The mosaic covers an area equivalent to more than 100 full moons, or five degrees across the sky. WISE used all four of its infrared detectors to capture this picture (3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red). Blue highlights mature stars, while yellow and red show dust heated by newborn, massive stars.
Andromeda is the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, and is located 2.5 million light-years from our sun. It is close enough for telescopes to spy the details of its ringed arms of new stars and hazy blue backbone of older stars. Also seen in the mosaic are two satellite galaxies, known as M32, located just a bit above Andromeda to the left of center, and the fuzzy blue M110, located below the center of the great spiral arms. These satellites are the largest of several that are gravitationally bound to Andromeda.
The Andromeda galaxy is larger than our Milky Way and contains more stars, but the Milky Way is thought to perhaps have more mass due to its larger proportion of a mysterious substance called dark matter. Both galaxies belong to our so-called Local Group, a collection of more than 50 galaxies, most of which are tiny dwarf systems. In its quest to map the whole sky, WISE will capture the entire Local Group.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Image Addition Date: 2010-02-17
WISE’s large field of view and multi-wavelength infrared sight allowed it to form this complete view of the cluster, containing dozens of bright galaxies and hundreds of smaller ones. Old stars show up at the shorter infrared wavelengths, color coded blue. Dust heated by new generations of stars lights up at longer infrared wavelengths, colored red here.
The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. The most spectacular member of Fornax is the galaxy known as NGC 1365, a giant barred spiral galaxy, located in the lower right of the mosaic. Against a backdrop of blue light from old stars, the dusty spiral arms in NGC 1365 stand out. The arms contain younger stars that are heating up their dust-enshrouded birth clouds, causing them to glow at longer infrared wavelengths. This galaxy is one of only a few in the Fornax cluster where prolific star formation can be seen. WISE will search the sky out to distances of 10 billion light-years looking for the most luminous cousins of NGC 1365.
In this image, 3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red.
Image Addition Date:
Other mission targets include comets, asteroids and cool stars called brown dwarfs. WISE discovered its first near-Earth asteroid on Jan. 12, and first comet on Jan. 22. The mission will scan the sky one-and-a-half times by October. At that point, the frozen coolant needed to chill its instruments will be depleted.
JPL manages WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The mission was competitively selected under NASA’s Explorers Program, which NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, built the science instrument, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., built the spacecraft. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
J.D. Harrington 202-358-5241
NASA Headquarters, Washington