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  • Imaging the Universe
    Posted by Heather Goss 7:25 PM on Dec 15, 2009

    This has been an interesting week for space imaging.  On Monday, NASA launched WISE, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer from Vandenburg AFB.  Over the next 7 to 8 months, the satellite will orbit Earth, conducting a comprehensive imaging of the sky.  Viewing in infrared (above the atmosphere, which blocks a great deal of light at this wavelength) should allow them to find potentially hundreds of thousands of asteroids -- likely what will generally be thought of as focus of this mission -- but it will also see some fantastic sights, like young stars and brown drawfs, thought to be the most common type of star.  WISE will see them as they heat up the dust around them, the same dust that prevents us from seeing them in visible light.  Searching for heated dust should also allow WISE to find Ultra-Luminous Infrared Galaxies, which are multiple galaxies merging together, creating new stars and lots and lots of debris.  This last survey may allow scientists to learn more about dark matter and how it affects the universe.

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    Photo of the Flame Nebula courtesy Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit.

    Meanwhile, the new telescope pointed at the beautiful, dark skies above the Atacama Desert in Chile was fired up this month and has started bringing back some spectacular results.  The Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, or VISTA, is in the Paranal Observatory and was recently handed over to the European Southern Observatory to run.  Although the telescope, which has a 4.1 meter mirror, will eventually have two cameras, one to capture near-infrared and the other for visible light, only the first one has been built so far.  Above you can see the first released image from VISTA, of the Flame Nebula in the constellation Orion (the bright blue star is one in Orion's belt).  As the largest survey telescope in the world, we should continue to expect some fantastic images from VISTA in the future.

    Last week, we showed you images of Phobos and Deimos, taken by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.  These increasingly better views of Mars' moons show their unusual shape and make-up, and may eventually tell us more about Mars' evolution. 

    And just today, news from the Mercury MESSENGER team follows up on their latest fly-by in September.  Scientists and image experts have created a mosaic map of the planet using photographs taken from the last three fly-bys, as well as those taken by the Mariner 10 mission in 1974-75.  Creating the map was just about as insanely difficult as you might think, with photos from wildly different cameras taken at different heights and flying above at different speeds.  But they did it, which you can download here.  The team will be presenting the mosaic today at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union and will use it as a resource when MESSENGER finally descends into Mercury's orbit in 2011.

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    Photo of R136 courtesy NASA, ESA, and F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee.

    Of course, if we're seeking out great space images, we can always rely on Hubble.  Today the HST team released images from R136, a young, super star cluster, which includes some of the most massive stars we've seen.  As the team says, "These hefty stars are destined to pop off, like a string of firecrackers, as supernovas in a few million years." Bet you wish you'd still be around to see that!

    If you're jonsing for some more spectacular images, head over to Discovery Magazine, where Bad Astronomer has put together his Top Ten Images of 2009.

    Tags: os99, astronomy, messenger, mars, vista, wise

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