News

Utah-made telescope blasts into space

By John Hollenhorst
KSL News
December 14, 2009
WISE Launch

WISE Launch – Photo Courtesy Bill Hartenstein, United Launch Alliance

LOGAN — A rocket launch in California drew cheers in Logan Monday morning as NASA launched a unique made‐in‐Utah instrument.

The Wide‐Field Infrared Survey Explorer, known as WISE, will map the entire sky and hunt for unknown, and possibly threatening, objects. WISE was designed and built at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.

As the Delta rocket blasted toward orbit 300 miles high, there was applause in Utah. Local scientists, their wives and children rooted for the rocket’s payload — a whole‐sky telescope that sees something we can’t see: infrared light.

“So, it’s looking for things that we don’t see with our naked eye,” explained Forrest Fackrell, executive vice president of the Utah State University Research Foundation.

Suppose a space rock that has Earth’s number on it is hurtling toward us and we can’t see it. This new instrument is designed to find things we can’t see. It could open our eyes to all sorts of new things in the Universe.

Infrared is a manifestation of an object’s heat, or even slight warmth. So, the scope is kept cold in a container like this with frozen hydrogen.

“440 Fahrenheit, below zero,” said calibration engineer Harri Latvakoski. “Very cold.”

WISE is so sensitive to heat, it’s expected to discover incredibly dim, not very warm objects. Computer simulations show it can spot a room‐temperature baseball, or even a golf ball, at the distance of Los Angeles to New York.

Portions of the instrument were tested and calibrated in a giant chamber designed to simulate the conditions of space.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll identify asteroids that heretofore have not been seen,” Fackrell said.

That would be a potential service for all mankind, Fackrell pointed out. “We all know that an asteroid was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs,” he said.

Beyond that, there’s pure science. The scope may discover dozens of star‐like objects lurking invisibly, closer than the closest known star.

“Brown dwarves are wannabe stars, I guess, that have not quite achieved enough heat for the fusion to take place that creates a star,” Fackrell explained.

The Wide‐Field Infrared Survey Explorer will perform for only ten months, until the frozen hydrogen thaws out. By then WISE is expected to have a complete map of infrared sources throughout the entire sky.

 

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