Probing the heart and soul of star formation

Orbiting infrared observatory snaps pics of nebulae, asteroids, comets and dead stars

MIAMI — A new orbiting observatory has captured the Heart and Soul of its mission.

HEART AND SOUL NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer recently recorded this false-color mosaic of two vast star-forming regions in the Milky Way about 6,000 light-years from Earth: the Heart nebula (right) and the Soul nebula (left). Two much more distant bodies lie near the bottom of the image: the elliptical galaxy Maffei 1 (blue) and the spiral galaxy Maffei 2, each about 10 million light-years from Earth. Blue and cyan represent infrared light at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 micrometers, which is dominated by starlight. Green and red represent light at 12 and 22 micrometers, which is mostly emitted by warm dust. JPL-Caltech/NASA, UCLA

Less than six months after being launched, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has recorded two giant bubbles of gas and stars, the Heart nebula and the Soul nebula, both about 6,000 light-years from Earth.

The craft’s infrared sensitivity enabled it to peer more deeply into the cold, dusty regions of each nebula, both of which are sites of intense star formation, than a visible-light telescope would. Astronomers released an image of the two star-forming regions May 24 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The image demonstrates WISE’s ability to uncover star formation in regions heavily buried in dust, said Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles, lead researcher for the mission. Launched in December 2009, WISE is devoted to finding cold or dusty objects that emit most of their light at infrared wavelengths. These bodies range from asteroids in the solar system to failed stars in nearby reaches of the Milky Way and remote galaxies millions of light-years from Earth.

So far, the mission has observed more than 60,000 asteroids, about 11,000 of which have never been seen before, said WISE researcher Tommy Grav of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Most lie in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but about 50 of them are previously unknown near-Earth objects with paths that take them close to Earth’s orbit. WISE has also discovered four short-period comets, which visit the inner solar system every few years to every few hundred years, as well as 22 comets with much longer orbits.

After it finishes mapping the entire sky, a task expected to be completed in July, WISE will spend the next three months surveying parts of the sky for a second time, until its infrared detectors run out of coolant.

That may be the end of the mission, but for astronomers it will be just the beginning. Researchers will spend years and years mining WISE data for new insights into star formation and other phenomena, said Erick Young of the Universities Space Research Association.

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