NASA catalogs the infrared sky

NASA has debuted a new atlas and catalog of the infrared sky, including more than a half billion stars, galaxies and other objects captured by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

WISE – which launched on December 14, 2009 – mapped the entire sky in 2010 with vastly better sensitivity than its predecessors. Indeed, it collected more than 2.7 million images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light, capturing everything from nearby asteroids to distant galaxies.

Individual WISE exposures have been combined into an atlas of more than 18,000 images – covering the sky and a catalog listing the infrared properties of more than 560 million individual objects found in the images.

Most of the objects are stars and galaxies, with roughly equal numbers of each. Many of them have never been seen before.

Roc Cutri, who leads the WISE data processing and archiving effort at the Infrared and Processing Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, confirms that WISE observations have led to numerous discoveries, including the elusive, coolest class of stars.

To be sure, astronomers hunted for these failed stars, called “Y-dwarfs,” for more than a decade. But because they have been cooling since their formation, they don’t shine in visible light and could not be spotted until WISE mapped the sky with its infrared vision. WISE also took a poll of near-Earth asteroids and determined there are significantly fewer mid-size objects than previously thought, meaning, NASA has likely found more than 90 percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids.

Other discoveries were equally unexpected. For example, WISE found the first known “Trojan” asteroid to share the same orbital path around the sun as Earth. One of the images released today shows a surprising view of an “echo” of infrared light surrounding an exploded star. The echo was etched in the clouds of gas and dust when the flash of light from the supernova explosion heated surrounding clouds.

“With the release of the all-sky catalog and atlas, WISE joins the pantheon of great sky surveys that have led to many remarkable discoveries about the universe,” said Cutri. 

”It will be exciting and rewarding to see the innovative ways the science and educational communities will use WISE in their studies now that they have the data at their fingertips.”

A comprehensive collection of WISE images can be found here, while an introduction and quick guide to accessing the WISE all-sky archive is available here.