NASA continues to outdo itself with the majestic images of space that keep shooting — but even by the agency’s high standards, the 12-year interval for the entire night sky is an impressive feat.
The images were captured over those years by the NEOWISE (Near-Earth Field Infrared Explorer) space telescope, which was originally launched in 2009 under the previous name “WISE” to study the universe beyond our solar system.
Its purpose has since been changed and renamed to track near-Earth objects including asteroids and comets.
The data collected by NEOWISE gives scientists an invaluable insight into how celestial objects move and change over time (time domain astronomy) — whether it’s exploding stars or wandering the night sky, or black holes devouring gas.
“If you go out and look up at the night sky, it might look like nothing ever changes, but that’s not the case,” says astronomer Amy Mainzer, of the University of Arizona, who is the principal investigator for NEOWISE.
The readings taken by NEOWISE show the location of hundreds of millions of objects, and the amount of infrared light that each emits. This information can then be analyzed to see what the object is doing.
Complete data on the sky is collected every six months (the time it takes for a telescope to travel half way around the sun), and astronomers have now stitched 18 of these maps together to form the interval.
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The maps have been particularly useful for studying brown dwarfs — objects that do not have enough mass to trigger the merger needed to become a bright star, even though they began to exist in similar ways. Those that happen to be closer to Earth seem to zip across the sky faster than distant objects, enabling NEOWISE to pick them up more easily.
About 260 brown dwarfs have now been identified by the telescope, and thanks to its investigations, we know about twice as many Y dwarfs – the cooler brown dwarfs of particular interest to astronomers, providing clues to the efficiency and timing of star generation. in the evolution of our galaxy.
says astronomer Peter Eisenhardt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
We’re also learning more about how stars form by scanning the sky with a telescope: Protostars emerge as objects that flash before they become stars, and scientists are now tracking nearly 1,000 of them to see how they evolved.
Then there is perhaps the most compelling celestial object of them all – the black hole. Data from NEOWISE can be used to identify bursts of infrared light from clouds of orbiting matter black holeswhich allows us to see these things at a greater distance.
The work is still far from over, and NEOWISE continues its mapping journey, with two more maps of the sky due in March 2023. Expect the project to reveal more — an activity you can’t see when staring at the stars at night.
“Stars are blazing and exploding,” Mainzer says. “Asteroids are buzzing. Black holes are tearing stars apart. The universe really is a busy, busy place.”
You can find out more on the NEOWISE project website.
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