Barring any unforeseen weather events at Vandenberg Air Force Base (I’m sure NASA is glad that they do not have launch facilities in upper Wisconsin right now), the WISE space telescope will be launched around 6 AM Pacific time on Friday, December 11th. Built as a part of NASA’s Explorers Program, WISE will observe our local planetary system as well deep space, hunting for objects in the mid-infrared spectrum.
The space telescope will be the most sensitive infrared-based scope to-date (up to 500,000 times more sensitive than a previous infrared telescope). To help achieve such a high-level of sensitivity, the components of WISE are kept extremely cold with the help of a cryostat, cooled by a solid block of hydrogen (below -430° F /15 Kelvins). After launch, WISE will settle into a polar orbit around our home planet, where it will take an image every eleven seconds. After six months WISE will have imaged the entire sky (an estimated 1.5 million images)!
We can expect to start seeing data from WISE in January 2010, after the project team has put it through a one month checkout period. Once the mission is over 7 months later, the infrared all-sky survey data will be combined with other surveys to help produce a full-spectrum picture of our galaxy and the surrounding universe from our perspective.
Data from WISE will also serve as guide for astronomers working with the currently flying Spitzer telescope,as well as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to Hubble). Any interesting images from WISE can be rendered in more detail with these mega-scopes.