Image: Pleiades cluster
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA
This image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The mosaic contains a few hundred image frames -- just a fraction of the more than 1 million WISE has captured so far as it completes its first survey of the entire sky in infrared light.
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updated 7/16/2010 10:19:53 AM ET 2010-07-16T14:19:53

Worried about Earth-threatening asteroids? One of NASA's newest space telescopes has spotted 25,000 never-before-seen asteroids in just six months.

Ninety-five of those are considered "near Earth," but in the language of astronomy that means within 30 million miles. Luckily for us, none poses any threat to Earth anytime soon.

Called WISE for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the telescope completes its first full scan of the sky on Saturday and then begins another round of imaging.

What's special about WISE is its ability to see through impenetrable veils of dust, picking up the heat glow of objects that are invisible to regular telescopes.

"Most telescopes focus on the hottest and brightest objects in the universe," said Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "WISE is especially sensitive to seeing what's cool and dark, what you could call the stealth objects of the universe."

Mission team members are elated with the discoveries of the $320 million project, which launched in December. By the end of the year, researchers expect to have a cosmic census of millions of newfound objects that should help answer questions about how planets, stars and galaxies form.

Besides all those asteroids, WISE has also sighted 15 new comets. It has spied hundreds of potential brown dwarfs — stellar objects that are bigger than a planet but much smaller than a star — and confirmed the existence of 20 of them, including some of the coldest ever known.

The telescope also detected what's thought to be an ultraluminous galaxy, more than 10 billion light years away and formed from other colliding galaxies.

Image: Southern Pinwheel Galaxy
AP
This image shows the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer's view of the nearby galaxy Messier 83.

"We're filling in the blanks on everything in the universe from near-Earth objects to forming galaxies," said project scientist Peter Eisenhardt of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the mission. "There's quite a zoo."

WISE's 16-inch telescope was built by Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory. It circles the Earth 300 miles high and takes snapshots every 11 seconds over the whole sky.

Since the sky survey began, the JPL team has reported the new near-Earth objects to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, which keeps track of all small solar system objects.

WISE is discovering near-Earth asteroids that are on average larger than what's found by existing telescopes, which should help scientists better calculate their potential threat, said Harvard astronomer Timothy Spahr, who directs the Minor Planet Center.

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The WISE mission comes a quarter century after the Infrared Astronomy Satellite made the first all-sky map in infrared wavelength in 1983. Unlike its predecessor, WISE is far more powerful. It's expected to keep taking images covering half of the sky until October when it will begin to run out of coolant.

NASA has released a picture a week of WISE's myriad finds. But the full celestial catalog of what's out there will not be released to the public until next year, after the team has had time to process the images and flag false alarms.

"The real discoveries will come when we let the whole world in on the data," Eisenhardt said.

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Video: Space telescope discovers 25,000 new asteroids

  1. Closed captioning of: Space telescope discovers 25,000 new asteroids

    >>> one scientist says it is a zoo out there, a brand-new nasa telescope has discovered 25,000 never before seenfr seefore seen asteroi ds near the earth. how much danger are we in from all of these flying asteroidses?

    >> luckily, we're not in much danger, there's about 95 different asteroids that are within about 13 million miles away from earth. one thing this mission is going to do is to keep track of where those are.

    >> this special telescope has also foubds i understand 15 new comets, what has surprised you the most about what you can see in these night skies? there's so much material out there, you can really help to get an idea of just how much material is out there.

    >> one question that we always have is does it help identify where our universe came from?

    >> this new mission is really going to help us look at the evolution of our own solar systems . and an idea of other galaxies out there too.

    >> you have a picture of an asteroid with you.

    >> this is what we call a piece of an asteroid that has landed on earth. this is one of these objects that this mission is going to be looking at and at the smithsonian we do a lot of work into these kind of objects.

    >> thanks for bringing it with you, it's like show and tell on msnbc.

    >>> you can join me sunday for the premier of caught on camera on patrol. from

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