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Sky-mapping probe serves up cosmic feast

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.
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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.