WISE

StarDate: December 3, 2009

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It's already been a big year for space telescopes. Back in May, the European Space Agency launched two of them -- one to study the afterglow of the Big Bang, the other to study the birth of the first stars and galaxies. And a few days later, astronauts finished the final servicing mission to Hubble Space Telescope.

Now, one more space telescope is just about ready to launch: WISE -- the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

WISE will look at the infrared -- wavelengths of energy that are invisible to human eyes. Earth's atmosphere absorbs most of these wavelengths, so the best view of the infrared universe comes from space.

WISE will use a wide-angle telescope to catalog hundreds of thousands of objects.

The list will include some of the brightest galaxies in the universe. These galaxies contain a lot of gas and dust. As they're warmed by the galaxies' stars, they produce copious amounts of infrared light.

WISE will also chart thousands of big chunks of rock and metal in the asteroid belt -- a wide band of debris between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It'll look for faint stars lurking in the Sun's neighborhood. And it'll scan for the failed stars known as brown dwarfs -- objects that are heavier than planets, but not heavy enough to shine as stars.

WISE will operate for about six months -- until the frozen hydrogen that cools its telescope evaporates. Its launch should provide a fitting conclusion for a big year in space-based astronomy.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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