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Utah-built satellite making big discoveries in space


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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.


So far, the WISE telescope has observed more than 60,000 asteroids, about 11,000 of them newly discovered, and about 50 are considered near-Earth objects. -NASA

"[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.


To date the WISE telescope, which has completed about three-fourths of its infrared survey of the entire sky, has taken 960,000 images. -NASA

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.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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