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NASA launches sky-mapping telescope

NASA on Monday launched a space telescope designed to scan the sky in search of never-before-seen asteroids, comets, stars and galaxies.
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NASA launched a new space observatory Monday to scan the skies for new celestial objects in infrared light.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, lifted off atop a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 6:09 a.m. PT (9:09 a.m. ET) on Monday.

The launch was originally scheduled for Friday, but NASA delayed it to allow engineers to fix a glitch on the rocket's booster steering engine. The issue was resolved and the launch went off seemingly without a hitch.

NASA's new telescope will view the heavens with infrared eyes that see long-wavelength light that is shrouded from optical lenses. The $320 million spacecraft is designed to survey the entire heavens in about six months, creating an all-sky map of the universe in infrared light.

"The infrared is important to us in astronomy because it shows us where the cool things are in the universe, things much cooler than the sun," Jon Morse, director of astrophysics at NASA, said during a pre-launch briefing last week. "The universe looks much different in infrared."

Infrared light should be especially useful for discovering new objects, such as nearby asteroids and dim stars called brown dwarfs, which may be too faint in optical light to have been spotted by other telescopes.

"We're going to see many interesting asteroids, stars and galaxies," said Ned Wright, WISE principal investigator from UCLA. "But I'm sure that the most interesting things we see are going to be total surprises."

WISE should be especially useful in detecting unknown near-Earth objects such as asteroids and comets that could pose a danger of collision with our planet.

"We're going to learn a lot about the risks associated with the near-Earth object population," said Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.  "Not to overstate the risk, but it's not a trivial risk either. After all the dinosaurs, we believe, were wiped out by a fairly large asteroid."

WISE is scheduled to undergo checkouts and calibrations for the next two weeks. Its first view of the sky will be in about 16 days, when its protective cover is removed. After that, WISE will capture about 5,700 pictures a day of the infrared sky. The mission management team says it will release the first science data within one month of launch.