Photos: Wonders from WISE

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  1. Do the cosmic chicken

    NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also known as the WISE space telescope, took this infrared image of a star-forming cloud called the Lambda Centauri Nebula. The glowing cloud of gas and dust has been nicknamed the Running Chicken Nebula, due to its distinctive shape. The nebula is about 5,800 light-years from Earth, and it's home to a new cluster of stars born nearly 8 million years ago. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / WISE team) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Three-nebula circus

    This mosaic image taken by NASA’s WISE space telescope features three nebulas - the Flame Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula and NGC 2023 - that are part of the giant Orion Molecular Cloud. The Flame Nebula is sparked by the bright blue star seen to the right of the central cloud. The Horsehead Nebula appears here as a faint bump on the lower right side of the vertical dust ridge, and NGC 2023 is the bright circle in the lower half of the image. () Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Flaming star

    NASA's WISE telescope captured this view of a runaway star racing away from its original home, about 1,500 light-years from Earth. Seen here surrounded by a glowing cloud of gas and dust, the star AE Aurigae appears to be on fire. Appropriately, the cloud is called the Flaming Star Nebula. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jellyfish in space

    This oddly colorful nebula is the supernova remnant IC 443. Also known as the Jellyfish Nebula, IC 443 is particularly interesting because it provides a look into how stellar explosions interact with their environment. IC 443, which is about 5,000 light-years from Earth, can be found near the star Eta Geminorum, which lies near Castor, one of the twins in the constellation Gemini. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Two faces of Andromeda

    One of WISE's first images highlighted the Andromeda Galaxy. The top image shows our next-door galaxy's older stellar population in shades of blue. The image was taken using the shortest-wavelength camera on WISE. You can clearly see a pronounced warp in the spiral arm on the upper left side of the galaxy's disk. Scientists believe the warp is the result of a collision with another galaxy. The bottom image is a mosaic created by combining data from all four of WISE's infrared detectors. Once again, shades of blue highlight mature stars. The yellow and red areas indicate where dust has been heated by newborn, massive stars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Witness to starbirth

    The star-forming cloud known as NGC 3603 is teeming with gas, dust and massive newborn stars in this image from WISE. The sky-mapping telescope, which surveys the whole sky in infrared light, is particularly sensitive to the warm dust that permeates star-forming clouds like this one. The cluster contains some of the most massive stars known. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Look! Up in the sky!

    Comet Siding Spring appears to streak across the sky like a superhero in this infrared image from WISE. The comet, also known as C/2007 Q3, was discovered in 2007 by observers in Australia. It made a close approach to Earth in October 2009 and is now heading back toward the outer reaches of the solar system. In this view, longer wavelengths of infrared light are red, and shorter wavelengths are blue. The comet appears red because it is 10 times cooler than the surrounding stars - for example, the bright blue star at lower left. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gathering of galaxies

    This galaxy cluster, called Fornax because of its location in a constellation of the same name, is 60 million light-years from Earth, making it one of the closest galaxy clusters to the Milky Way. Clusters are large families of galaxies that are gravitationally bound together, containing enough matter to pull even distant galaxies toward them. The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. The most spectacular member of Fornax is the galaxy known as NGC 1365, a giant barred spiral galaxy, located in the lower right of the mosaic. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 2/17/2010 6:01:32 PM ET 2010-02-17T23:01:32

A wispy comet, a bursting star-forming cloud, the Andromeda Galaxy and a faraway cluster of hundreds of galaxies are just a few of the cosmic sights seen in the first processed images from a new NASA all-sky survey.

NASA's new Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, began scanning the entire sky in infrared light on Jan. 14. Since then, the space telescope has beamed back more than 250,000 raw, infrared images. Tucked away in that bunch were the four diverse space objects that provide a taste of the survey telescope's capabilities.

"WISE has worked superbly," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for science missions at NASA headquarters in Washington. "These first images are proving the spacecraft's secondary mission of helping to track asteroids, comets and other stellar objects will be just as critically important as its primary mission of surveying the entire sky in infrared."

One image shows a comet called Siding Spring. As the comet zooms around the sun, it sheds dust that glows in infrared light visible to WISE.

The comet's tail, which stretches about 10 million miles (16 million kilometers), looks like a streak of red paint. A bright star appears below it in blue in the WISE image.

During its survey, the WISE mission is expected to find dozens of comets, including some that ride along in orbits that take them somewhat close to Earth's path around the sun. It found its first new comet on Jan. 22. Scientists hope WISE will help unravel clues locked inside comets about how our solar system came to be.

Star-forming factory
Another new image shows a bright and choppy star-forming region called NGC 3603, which sits 20,000 light-years away in the Carina spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

This star-forming factory is churning out batches of new stars, some of which are monstrously massive and hotter than the sun. The hot stars warm the surrounding dust clouds, causing them to glow at infrared wavelengths.

WISE will see hundreds of similar star-making regions in our galaxy, helping astronomers piece together a picture of how stars are born. The observations also provide an important link to understanding violent episodes of star formation in distant galaxies. Because NGC 3603 is much closer, astronomers use it as a lab to probe the same type of action that is taking place billions of light-years away.

Galaxies near and far
The third new image peers farther out from our Milky Way galaxy to our nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda spiral galaxy. Andromeda is a bit bigger than the Milky Way and about 2.5 million light-years away.

The new picture highlights WISE's wide field of view — it covers an area equivalent to more than 100 full moons and even shows other smaller galaxies near Andromeda, all belonging to our local group of more than about 50 galaxies. WISE will capture the entire local group.

The fourth WISE picture provides an even more distant view. It shows a region of hundreds of galaxies all bound together into one family.

Called the Fornax cluster, these galaxies are 60 million light-years from Earth. The mission's infrared views reveal both stagnant and active galaxies, providing a census of data on an entire galactic community.

"All these pictures tell a story about our dusty origins and destiny," said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "WISE sees dusty comets and rocky asteroids tracing the formation and evolution of our solar system. We can map thousands of forming and dying solar systems across our entire galaxy. We can see patterns of star formation across other galaxies, and waves of star-bursting galaxies in clusters millions of light years away."

Other WISE mission targets include asteroids within our solar system and cool failed stars known as brown dwarfs. WISE discovered its first near-Earth asteroid on Jan. 12.

By October 2010, WISE will have scanned the sky one-and-a-half times, at which point, the frozen coolant needed to chill its instruments will run out.

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