(ORDO NEWS) — NASA continues to outdo itself by releasing majestic images of space, but even by the agency’s high standards, capturing the entire night sky for 12 years is an impressive feat.
The images were taken in those years with the NEOWISE (Near-Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer) space telescope, which was originally launched in 2009 under the previous name WISE to study the universe beyond our solar system.
It has since been repurposed and renamed to track near-Earth objects, including asteroids and comets.
The data collected by NEOWISE gives scientists invaluable insights into how celestial objects move and change over time (time domain astronomy) – whether it’s star explosions or wandering through the night sky, or black holes swallowing gas.
“If you go outside and look at the night sky, it may seem like nothing ever changes, but it doesn’t,” says the astronomer. Amy Mainzer of the University of Arizona, who is the principal investigator for NEOWISE.
The readings made by NEOWISE show the location of hundreds of millions of objects and the amount of infrared light emitted by each of them. This information can then be parsed to figure out what the object does.
Every six months (the time it takes a telescope to travel halfway around the Sun), data is collected from the entire sky. and now astronomers have glued 18 of those maps together to form a timeline.
These maps have been especially useful for studying brown dwarfs, objects that don’t have enough mass to ignite the thermonuclear fusion needed to become a brightly burning star, despite the fact that they started out the same way.
Those closest to Earth move faster across the sky than more distant objects, making it easier for NEOWISE to find them.
The telescope has already identified about 260 brown dwarfs, and thanks to his research, we know about twice as many Y dwarfs, the coldest brown dwarfs that are of particular interest to astronomers, which provides a clue to understanding the efficiency of star formation and its timing in the evolution of our galaxy .
“We never expected the spacecraft to last this long, and I don’t think we could have foreseen the science we could do with so much data,” says astronomer Peter Eisenhardt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US. California.
We’re also learning more about how stars form from telescope scanning of the sky: Protostars stand out as twinkling objects before becoming stars, and scientists are now tracking almost 1,000 of them to see how they evolve.
Then perhaps the most important celestial object of all is a black hole. NEOWISE data can be used to identify bursts of infrared light from clouds of matter orbiting black holes , allowing us to see these objects at greater distances.
The work is far from over and NEOWISE continues its mapping journey with two more sky maps due in March 2023. Expect the project to reveal a lot more – activity you can’t see when looking up at the stars at night.
“Stars flare up and explode,” says Mainzer. “Asteroids are flying by. Black holes tear stars apart. The universe is a very busy and active place.”
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