Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

On Monday, NASA plans to launch a new space telescope. It will scan the sky to discover hidden asteroids and stars.

As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, the telescope may be able to find objects that are close to Earth but have been too dim to see.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right now, you are shining with infrared light, so is anything warmer than absolute zero: an ice cube, your desk, plus far away asteroids and stars. This new telescope is designed to detect hard to see space objects by looking for their infrared glow. The telescope is called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

To make sure WISE isn't blinded by its own heat, it has to be kept supercold - minus 438 degrees Fahrenheit. Bill Irace is the project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California. He says the telescope will be insulated by a giant high-tech thermos bottle called a cryostat that's cooled with frozen hydrogen

Mr. BILL IRACE (Project Manager, WISE, Jet Propulsion Laboratory): We have now 40 pounds of solid hydrogen in our cryostat. Some people think it looks like R2D2 without wheels. It's kind of a funny-looking thing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The funny-looking thing is about the size of a polar bear. A rocket will blast it into orbit around the Earth. WISE will then spend about six months taking more than a million images that will be stitched together to create a panoramic infrared view of the entire sky.

Amy Mainzer is deputy project scientist for WISE. She says WISE should find many previously unseen asteroids, including ones that might be threatening to smack into Earth. To explain how WISE will do this, she held up two rocks at a press conference.

Dr. AMY MAINZER (Deputy Project Scientist, WISE): One of these rocks is sort of a light and shiny color and the other one is a much darker color, sort of like a piece of coal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mainzer says if these were space rocks - asteroids - a telescope that looks for visible light would detect sunlight reflecting off the small, brightly colored rock. The big dark rock would be too faint to see.

Dr. MAINZER: But in infrared light both of these objects look equally bright. And, in fact, this dark asteroid over here may stand out more to an infrared telescope, because what you're seeing is the heat that's being radiated from the asteroid.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Besides dark asteroids, the telescope is also expected to pick up dim stars. A kind of failed star called a Brown Dwarf doesn't burn as hot as our sun. Instead, it has a relatively feeble glow. So even though astronomers expect lots of Brown Dwarfs to be in the neighborhood around our sun, they've only detected a handful.

Peter Eisenhardt is the project scientist for WISE. He says this telescope should detect many nearby Brown Dwarfs.

Dr. PETER EISENHARDT (Project Scientist, WISE): And it's possible that one of these nearby Brown Dwarfs is even closer to the sun than any star that we now know of. The closest star that we know of now is called Proxima Centauri; it's about four light-years away.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he notes that Brown Dwarfs may have planets around them. So if WISE discovers that our closest star neighbor is actually a Brown Dwarf, it may be that there are planets beyond our solar system that are closer than we ever thought.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.