Image: WISE
NASA
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, shown in this artist's conception, is designed to survey the entire sky in mid-infrared wavelengths. One complete sweep of the sky has been completed, and the extended mission will allow WISE to finish a second sweep.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/4/2010 5:25:37 PM ET 2010-10-04T21:25:37

NASA's sky-mapping spacecraft has embarked on a new phase in its mission after running out of coolant designed to chill its heat-sensitive instruments.

The space agency said Monday that two of the telescope's infrared detectors can still function at warmer temperatures and will continue to search for near-Earth asteroids and comets.

Since launching in 2009, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has completed its primary mission to map the entire sky.

WISE has discovered more than 33,500 new asteroids, 19 comets and numerous brown dwarfs.

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The extended survey is expected to last one to four months, depending on how the early results turn out. It will be known as NEOWISE, an acronym that blends "near-Earth objects" with the spacecraft's name.

The detectors' temperatures are warm only in a relative sense. They're still chilled to 334 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-200 degrees Celsius). The detectors need to be that cold to register the faint heat from their faraway targets.

In addition to asteroids and comets, WISE will continue looking for brown dwarfs, celestial objects that are considered too big to be planets but too small to light up like a normal star. WISE's extended survey should give astronomers the opportunity to pick out the brown dwarfs closest to our own sun.

"We're working on figuring out just how far away the brown dwarfs are, and how luminous the galaxies are," WISE principal investigator Ned Wright, an astronomer at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a mission update.

The WISE science team now is analyzing millions of objects captured in the images, including many that have never seen before. A first batch of WISE data, covering more than half the sky, will be released to the astronomical community next spring, with the rest to follow in 2012.

“The science data collected by WISE will be used by the scientific community for decades,” said Jaya Bajpayee, the WISE program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will also provide a sky map for future observatories like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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