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A United Launch Alliance Delta II
A United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite launches Monday morning from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. This was ULA’s 16th successful and final launch of 2009 and 37th launch in 36 months of operation. WISE will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images.//Bill Hartenstein/United Launch Alliance

After days of delays, a Delta 2 rocket blasted off early Monday on a mission to deliver a space telescope that astronomers hope will provide exciting new views of the universe.

The 12-story rocket built by United Launch Alliance blasted off at 6:09 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The liftoff came after delays due to rain storms last week and a technical problem that crews fixed over the weekend.

Riding aboard the rocket was NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, that scientists are hoping will conduct a cosmic treasure hunt.

The 1,400-pound satellite will map the entire sky in 10 months on its $320 million mission.

“WISE thundered overhead, lighting up the pre-dawn skies,” said William Irace, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “All systems are looking good, and we are on our way to seeing the entire infrared sky better than ever before.”

The satellite separated from the rocket about an hour after liftoff, officials said.

The mission’s high-resolution infrared observation “means that WISE will see much fainter objects and provide much sharper images,” said Edward Wright, WISE principal investigator from UCLA. “As a result WISE will see hundreds of millions of objects and of these, millions will have never been seen before.”

Previous missions mapped the sky with infrared technology but WISE promises to deliver extremely detailed images. While a previous infrared camera satellite used 62 pixels and delivered blurry images, WISE boasts 4 million pixels and is expected to provide sharper pictures.

It should help fulfill answers for those wondering about the mysterious sky.

“When I was a little kid I used to wonder how could anybody not be interested in the whole universe, and I think that child-like wonder of what’s in the universe is still there in all of us,” said Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project scientist at JPL.

WISE will provide a road map for missions to be performed by bigger telescopes, such as the orbiting Hubble and NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and the SOFIA airborne telescope.

“WISE is going to provide a wide-angle view, just like a wide-angle lens on a camera, whereas these large telescopes are like telephoto lenses on a camera, and you use them to provide detailed images and zoom in on small areas on the sky,” Wright said.

Because WISE takes a four-color image every 11 seconds, the spacecraft will capture millions of images during its mission.

“On this view we’re going to see many interesting asteroids, stars and galaxies,” Wright said. “But I’m sure the most interesting things we’re going to see are going to be total surprises, because we just haven’t looked at this volume of the universe for years before.”

Amy Mainzer, WISE deputy project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the infrared telescope should provide more detailed information on the size and composition of asteroids.

“We’d like to know whether or not the asteroids are, on average, soft and squishy like a marshmallow or hard and dense like a piece of solid metal,” said Mainzer. “That’s an important thing to know if we are to someday plan a future mitigation campaign in the unlikely event that we do find an asteroid that is on a collision course with the Earth.”

 “That’s not to overstate that risk, but it’s not a trivial risk either,” Eisenhardt said. “After all, the dinosaurs, we now believe,  were wiped out by a fairly large asteroid and we still don’t know that much about the total numbers or the sizes of the asteroid population.

“WISE is really going to tell us a tremendous amount of information about that, Eisenhardt added.

WISE also will observe objects farther away from Earth than asteroids, such as brown dwarves, or failed stars, and luminous galaxies, added Eisenhardt. Seeing those objects in the past has been difficult without the use of infrared.

“I think most people would be interested to know there are all these nearby stars out there that we haven’t yet discovered,” Eisenhardt said. “To me, I think that’s probably the most exciting discovery that we hope WISE will make.”

The legacy of WISE will endure for decades, Eisenhardt added, noting that astronomers are still writing scientific papers about an infrared satellite survey 26 years ago.

To operate, WISE employs a super-chilled instrument — minus 430 degrees — to avoid seeing and recording its own heat in the infrared spectrum.

For the Delta rocket team, WISE marked the 37th blastoff in 36 months since the firm’s first liftoff following the creation of United Launch Alliance from rivals Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company.

“The men and women of ULA are extremely proud of our mission success record while merging the Atlas and Delta product lines into one cohesive team,” Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president for Delta rockets. “Launching successfully 16 times in one year is no easy feat, and

37 missions in 36 months is certainly a high-water mark for our industry. We look forward to a great 2010 with several critical missions ahead of us.”

 Monday morning’s mission marked the eighth and final launch of 2009 from Vandenberg. The next local launch, of a Missile Defense Agency interceptor, is scheduled for January.

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