Mapping the universe, SDL gets $40 million grant to build WISE telescope

By Tyler Riggs
The Herald Journal
November 23, 2004

NORTH LOGAN -- A new space telescope designed to "map the universe" will be built in Cache Valley, thanks to a $40 million grant from NASA.

Officials announced Monday that Utah State University's Space Dynamics Lab has received the grant to develop a next-generation infrared telescope. The telescope will be used to explore, survey and build a graphical map of the universe, with hopes of discovering new stars, galaxies and asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth.

"(The Hubble Telescope) was looking at the one deer antler out there in a herd of deer on the hillside; we're going to be looking at the whole deer and maybe two or three deer standing around him," said Harry Ames, SDL deputy director. "We may even find asteroids that cross Earth's plane. This mission could ultimately protect Earth."

Called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, the mission has been approved to proceed into the preliminary design phase. It represents the next lower-cost scientific spacecraft in NASA's medium-class Explorer program.

The mission will cost NASA about $208 million, with SDL receiving its $40 million over the next three years. WISE is scheduled to launch in 2008.

The telescope will work like night vision goggles, surveying space with infrared detectors 500,000 times more sensitive than those that have been used on similar previous missions. It will reveal hundreds of stars, some of which, Ames said, might be closer to the sun than what is believed to be the closest, Alpha Centauri.

"We're going to see things that have been there for billions of years but we haven't seen because our technology hasn't given us the resolution and the sensitivity to see them," Ames said. "The technology has progressed so much over the last 22 years."

Along with its search for stars and asteroids, Ames said, WISE will provide a panoramic map for astronomers to use when the James Webb Space Telescope -- the planned replacement for Hubble -- is launched. Scientists will be able to pinpoint areas they want the Webb Space Telescope to explore instead of just "poking at the sky," as was the case with Hubble.

"The mission will complete the basic reconnaissance of the universe ... providing a vast storehouse of knowledge that will endure for decades," said Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Ames said about 25 SDL employees will work on the project.

"It's a very inexpensive but very major scientific undertaking for the whole astronomical community," Ames said. "We'll have big activity going on here over the next 30 months and then we'll take it out and get ready to launch it."

Copyright © 2004 The Herald Journal. Logan, Utah