New sky-mapping telescope takes first photo

Image: Region in the constellation Carina
This infrared snapshot of a region in the constellation Carina near the Milky Way was taken shortly after NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer ejected its cover. . / NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
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A sea of stars takes center stage in the very first photo released from NASA's newest space telescope built to map the entire sky.

About 3,000 stars are visible in the new sky image from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a space telescope launched to seek out elusive dark asteroids, new planets, odd brown dwarfs and other cosmic objects. The photo covers a patch of sky in the constellation Carina that is about three times the size of the full moon as seen from Earth.

While WISE was also built to hunt for galaxies that are invisible to optical telescope but shine ultra-bright in the infrared, the first images do not include any of those unusually bright objects. Such targets could damage the telescope's delicate detectors if WISE stares at them for too long, researchers said.

This photograph is one of several engineering pictures beamed to Earth by WISE after the telescope ejected its protective lens cap last week. They are being used to calibrate the space telescope to make sure it takes the sharpest images of the sky.

WISE is designed to take a snapshot of the sky once every 11 seconds as it orbits the Earth. To make sure those pictures come out clear, the telescope has an internal scan mirror that can move to counteract WISE's motion during its orbit.

"Right now, we are busy matching the rate of the scan mirror to the rate of the spacecraft, so we will capture sharp pictures as our telescope sweeps across the sky," said WISE mission project manager William Irace at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

WISE researchers have said the space telescope will generate the most detailed infrared maps of the universe to date. To do that, the telescope's infrared detectors are kept at a chilly minus 445 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 265 degrees Celsius), or about 8 degrees Kelvin.

WISE has a limited amount of super-cold coolant onboard. That supply will run out in October, when the mission is expected to end, researchers said.

WISE's first sky survey should be complete in about six months, with a second to follow through the fall. A preliminary look at WISE's sky maps is expected in April 2011, with the final cosmic atlas due out in March 2012. But a selection of choice images collected during the survey will be released earlier, beginning in February, mission managers said.