Utah-built telescope to help map the universe

Utah-built telescope to help map the universe

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The launch of an infrared telescope into Earth's orbit is expected to reveal a better map of the universe.

The 800-pound telescope was built by Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

It was scheduled to lift off aboard a Delta 2 rocket early Monday from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Utah State spent five years developing "basically a big digital camera," said John Elwell, the lab's program manager. "It's big because we have to collect a lot of light."

The camera can peer at objects that are not visible to the eye.

It detects an object's heat instead. It will snap an infrared image every 11 seconds for six months, taking 1 million images of objects from distant galaxies to asteroids in our own solar system.

The telescope has been dubbed the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE.

"It will see much fainter objects and provide much sharper images. WISE will see hundreds of millions of objects and of these, millions will have never been seen before," said Edward Wright, an astronomer and the project's principle investigator at UCLA. "We're going to see asteroids, failed stars and galaxies. The most interesting things we'll see will be total surprises."

Utah State designed and assembled the telescope under a $76 million NASA contract.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCLA are overseeing the program.

Plans for a launch Friday were scrubbed because of a technical glitch, giving way to a new launch schedule of just past 7 a.m. Monday, weather permitting.

The WISE launch comes 25 years after the last all-sky survey. This time scientists are using infrared equipment 100 times more sensitive, so the images will not only be far sharper and more complete, but will reveal key information about objects, such as size and composition. This will help scientists track those dark rocks spinning around our sun by the millions.

The project's 21-member science team also expects to observe the process of galaxy formation and brown dwarves and other stars that lack the critical mass to emit light.

"These failed stars cool off where they become invisible at optical wave lengths. There should be as many failed stars as visible stars," chief project scientist Peter Eisenhardt said.

NASA will start releasing the images within a month of the launch.


Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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