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NASA has released a trove of data from itssky-mapping mission, allowing scientists and anyone with access tothe Internet to peruse millions of galaxies, stars, asteroids andother hard-to-see objects.
Many of the targets in the celestial catalog released onlinethis week have been previously observed, but there are significantnew discoveries. The mission's finds include more than 33,000 newasteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter and 20 comets.
NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, whichcarried an infrared telescope, in December 2009 to scan the cosmosin finer detail than previous missions. The spacecraft, known asWISE, mapped the sky 1 1/2 times during its 14-month mission,snapping more than 2 1/2 million images from its polar orbit.
The spacecraft's ability to detect heat glow helps it finddusty, cold and distant objects that are often invisible to regulartelescopes.
The batch of images made available represents a little over halfof what's been observed in the all-sky survey. The full cosmiccensus is scheduled for release next spring.
"The spectacular new data just released remind us that we havemany new neighbors," said Pete Schultz, a space scientist at BrownUniversity, who had no role in the project.
University of Alabama astronomer William Keel already startedmining the database for quasars - compact, bright objects poweredby super-massive black holes.
"If I see a galaxy with highly ionized gas clouds in itsoutskirts and no infrared evidence of a hidden quasar, that's asign that the quasar has essentially shut down in the last 30,000to 50,000 years," Keel said.
WISE ran out of coolant in October, making it unable to chillits heat-sensitive instruments. So it spent its last few monthssearching for near-Earth asteroids and comets that should helpscientists better calculate whether any are potentiallythreatening.
The mission, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, washundreds of times more sensitive than its predecessor, the InfraredAstronomical Satellite, which launched in 1983 and made the firstall-sky map in infrared wavelength.