Sky's the limit for USU project – an orbiting NASA telescope

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
November 24, 2004
The WISE orbiting telescope will be able to detect new stars, galaxies.

The WISE orbiting telescope will be able to detect new stars, galaxies.

Under a $40 million NASA contract, Utah State University is to build an orbiting infrared telescope able to examine strange luminous galaxies, find new stars and perhaps help protect Earth from asteroids.

Dubbed WISE, for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the telescope is scheduled for launch in 2008. It will detect infrared light, such as heat radiation, coming from objects that are not currently detectable.

The telescope will map the entire sky, according to a Web site posted by the University of California at Berkeley. It will be "searching for the nearest and coolest stars, the origins of stellar and planetary systems and the most luminous galaxies in the universe."

The overall cost of the project is $208 million, with USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory receiving $40 million over three years to build the instrument, according to USU.

According to project scientist Peter Eisenhardt of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, at some wavelengths WISE will be 500 times more sensitive than previous infrared surveys and at others, 500,000 times more sensitive.

"Probably the most exciting thing about WISE for me is the potential of finding a star closer to the sun than any we know about now," he said. Scientists believe "we haven't found about two-thirds of the closest stars to the sun because they're really faint and cool and dim," he added in a telephone interview.

WISE might detect hundreds of brown stars, which are smaller stars that never ignited with the fusion reaction that makes our own sun blaze.

Harry Ames, deputy director of the Space Dynamics Laboratory, told the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday that work will go on at SDL for about 2 1/2 years.
"We're basically beginning that now," he said. "We've been through several major reviews, and full funding has been turned on with this new federal fiscal year," which began Oct. 1.

WISE will be the first infrared telescope in 22 years to carry out a survey of the whole sky.

"This one's pretty exciting," Ames said. "We'll be seeing probably upwards of 100,000 new asteroids out there."

That's an estimate, he said, since nobody knows for certain how many there are.

"We think there are that many," he added.

Some of them might turn out to be of the Earth-crossing variety, asteroids whose own orbits take them across the orbit of Earth. If one happened to swing close to our planet, perhaps gravity would draw it to Earth with catastrophic consequences. However, if WISE can detect the asteroid, a defense might be possible.

Astronomical modeling predicts there should be stars closer to our own solar system than the nearest known system to our own, Alpha Centauri. Maybe we don't see them because they are "dark stars, meaning they didn't quite explode into full suns," Ames said.

While not brightly lit, these objects, denoted brown dwarfs, put out a great deal of heat. WISE could discover them by the infrared glow.

The telescope also will search for galaxies that are billions of years old, whose starlight began traveling through space "long before Earth ever coalesced into Earth," he added.

"We'll be looking at how galaxies have evolved and how solar systems have evolved."

Asked the reason that WISE will be so much more sensitive than previous infrared survey projects, Ames said it is because of "just a 22-year improvement in computers and in infrared focal planes."

The telescope itself will be relatively small, with a diameter of just under 20 inches. It will be inexpensive for a NASA observatory, $208 million, compared with the price of the Hubble orbiting telescope. Ames said that visible-light telescope cost billions of dollars.

© 2004 Deseret News Publishing Company