Utah-built satellite making big discoveries in space

By John Hollenhorst
KSL News
May 24, 2010
Heart and Soul Nebulae

NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
Heart and Soul Nebulae
Located about 6,000 light-years from Earth, the Heart and Soul nebulae form a vast star-forming complex that makes up part of the Perseus spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. Also visible near the bottom of this image are two galaxies, Maffei 1 and Maffei 2. Both galaxies contain billions of stars are about 10 million light-years away. The image covers an area of the sky over ten times as wide as the full moon.

Seagull Nebula - Running with the Big Dog

NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
Seagull Nebula - Running with the Big Dog
The Seagull nebula, seen in this infrared mosaic from NASA's WISE, draws its common name from its resemblance to a gull in flight. But it depends on your point of view. When the image is rotated 180 degrees it bears a passing resemblance to a galloping lizard. The image spans an area about seven times as wide as the full Moon, and three times as high, straddling the border between the constellations Monoceros and Canis Major (the Big Dog). So you might say this lizard is running with the Big Dog, while the gull is flying from it.

M3 & Comet Garradd

NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
M3 & Comet Garradd
This image from the WISE mission was taken on January 2, 2010, during the check-out phase, before the start of the WISE survey. The image spans an area in the sky about 7 times the size of the full Moon in portions of the constellations Bootes and Canes Venatici. In the lower right portion of the image there is a streak of orange light. This is most likely a human-made satellite, orbiting Earth at a higher altitude than the WISE telescope, which is at 523 km above the surface. Just above the satellite in the image is Comet C/2008 Q3 (Garradd). This comet was discovered in August 2008 by Gordon Garradd of the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.

LOGAN—NASA announced Monday that a space satellite designed and built in Utah has discovered an astonishing number of new asteroids, and a few dozen have orbits that bring them close to Earth.

Since the launch by NASA in December, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite has been taking an infrared picture every 11 seconds. The people who designed and built WISE at USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) are ecstatic.

"[It's providing] new discoveries, new data, new views of the universe around us. It's a very proud time for us at SDL," said Doug Lemon, president of the Utah State University Research Foundation.

Some heavenly sights would be as obvious as the nose on our face if we could see in infrared light. From our vantage point on Earth, one seagull nebula occupies a chunk of the sky seven times the diameter of the full moon, but when we look up we can't see the nebula at all.

"WISE looks at heat, not visible light," explained WISE program manager John Elwell. "What you and I see with our eyes is not what WISE sees."

The satellite has now captured images of 72 comets – a dozen of them newly discovered – and 60,000 asteroids – 11,000 previously unknown.

"We found some, between 30 and 50 asteroids, which we call near-Earth objects, meaning sooner or later their orbit brings them within a certain distance of Earth," Elwell said.

Since WISE took those images of the asteroids, scientists have done the calculating and found that Earth has nothing to worry about.

"We haven't found anything that poses a danger, but we certainly found ones that we want to keep our eye on," Elwell said.

WISE has taken almost 1 million images so far, but NASA has released only about two dozen to the public.

"The science community will get a look at this about a year from now. In the summer of '11 will be an initial release of the complete catalog of the sky," said Neil Holt, director of the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory.

"They've been waiting a long time for this kind of data, and so I think there's a very hungry clientele out there that will be looking at these for the next couple of decades," Lemon said.

One asteroid is of special note; it's at least 100 meters in diameter. Put this in your day planner: Next March 4 (2011), it will swing by the Earth just a few million miles away. That's close by astronomical standards, but far enough to give us plenty of breathing room.

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