Amazing Picture for WISE’s Fourth Anniversary

A newly released image from NASA’s Wide-Field
Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) shows a dying star, called the Helix nebula,
surrounded by the tracks of asteroids. The nebula is far outside our solar
system, while the asteroid tracks are inside our solar system.
Amazing Picture for WISE's Fourth Anniversary


The portrait, discovered by chance in a search for asteroids,
comes at a time when the mission’s team is celebrating its fourth launch
anniversary — and new lease on life. In August, NASA decided to bring WISE out
of hibernation to search for more asteroids. The mission was rechristened
NEOWISE, formerly the name of the asteroid-hunting portion of WISE. “I was recently looking for asteroids in images collected in
2010, and this picture jumped out at me,” said Amy Mainzer, the NEOWISE
principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
“I recognized the Helix nebula right away.”
WISE launched into the morning skies above Vandenberg Air Force
Base in central California on Dec. 14, 2009. By early 2011, it had finished
scanning the entire sky twice in infrared light, snapping pictures of nearly
one billion objects, including remote galaxies, stars and asteroids. Upon
completing its main goals, WISE was put to sleep. Now, engineers are bringing
the spacecraft out of slumber, as it cools back down to the chilly temperatures
required for infrared observations. The spacecraft no longer has onboard coolant,
but two of its infrared channels still work and can be used for asteroid
hunting.
“WISE is the spacecraft that keeps on giving,” said Ned
Wright of UCLA, the principal investigator of WISE before it transitioned into
NEOWISE.
In the Helix nebula image, infrared wavelengths of light have been
assigned different colors, with longer wavelengths being red, and shorter,
blue. The bluish-green and red materials are expelled remnants of what was once
a star similar to our sun. As the star aged, it puffed up and its outer layers
sloughed off. The burnt-out core of the star, called a white dwarf, is heating
the expelled material, inducing it to glow with infrared light. Over time, the
brilliant object, known as a planetary nebula, will fade away, leaving just the
white dwarf.

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