The picture you see above is the result of 14 years of hard work on the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. This mission to map the entire sky was successfully completed with 2.7 million images of 4 wavelengths in the infra-red spectrum, totaling 15 terabytes of data. The data isn’t just a pretty picture, it catalogs 560 million individual objects including asteroids, stars, and galaxies. Many of these objects have never been discovered by any other means, such as type Y stars that are so small and cool that they don’t shine in visible light. With the completion of this mission, we now have yet another set of data that the scientific community can use to understand the mysteries of the universe.
The WISE mission provides a great amount of knowledge about our galaxy and the universe but it also did an extremely detailed survey of asteroids in our own solar system. It discovered that there are significantly less mid sized asteroids than previously thought. That’s good news, as this size asteroid could wreak havoc upon the Earth if it should intersect the orbit of our planet. It also found that 90 percent of the largest near Earth asteroids have been cataloged. The mission was also able to image “Trojan” asteroids that share the same orbit of Earth around the sun. Many Trojan asteroids have been found around Jupiter, lurking in gravitational Lagrange points but never before around Earth. These asteroids either lag behind the Earth or precede the Earth in it’s orbit, yet never come close to the Earth itself because they are traveling at the same speed as the Earth around the Sun.
Even though the survey has just been completed, already over 100 scientific papers have been written using data from the WISE mission. Even more papers are expected now that astronomers can access the entire sky survey. This survey joins other entire sky surveys such as the Plank Sky Survey in Microwave Radiation, ROSAT Sky Survey in X-Ray Radiation, Photoptic Sky Survey (interactive link – Wow!), 2MASS, H-alpha, and many others. It is nearly impossible to determine what a person looks like by only examining a single skin cell, a finger, a hand, or an arm. It is only when we are able to see the whole picture that we can understand how a human or how the universe works. With the completion of another sky survey, astronomers will not have to wait for precious time behind a telescope because that information will be instantly available to them at their computer via the internet. It is a remarkable time to be an astronomer or even just a gawker.PlanckROSATH-Alpha