First light for WISE!

By Phil Plait | January 6, 2010 2:28 pm

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has seen first light — in other words, taken its first image from space!


[Click to embiggen and get access to a big TIFF version.]

Nice. It may not look as pretty as a Hubble or Spitzer shot at first glance, but to an astronomer it’s the Mona Lisa. The images are sharp (it’s in focus), the stars are not overexposed, diffuse sources are detected, and the diffraction spikes (the crosshairs centered on stars) are clean.

In other words: bingo!

This is an engineering image, not a science one. So it’s not supposed to be gorgeous or ready for publication or anything like that. It’s more like an aliveness test, to make sure the spacecraft is operating as expected. And it is!

This image is an 8-second exposure of a region in the constellation Carina. Normally, WISE will always be on the move, constantly sweeping the sky and taking data. But in this case, they pointed it at one spot to make sure everything was working. WISE works in the infrared, and this picture is actually a composite of three images: blue represents light at 3.4 microns (about 5 times longer than what we can see with our eyes), green is 4.6 microns, and red is 12 microns. This is well into the IR, and shows stars and warm dust in that region.

To give you an idea of the scale, the image covers the same area of the sky as three full Moons, so WISE takes big swaths of the sky when it looks around. That’s why it’s called a survey explorer. It will take millions of images of the sky, which can be stitched together to make mosaics.

WISE launched last December, and we’ve been waiting for news that it’s working. This image shows it is, so we can expect very cool stuff coming from the orbiting observatory in the future. The mission is actually quite short, only 10 months long. In October, it’s expected run out of the frozen hydrogen (!) being used to cool the detectors — warm objects emit infrared light, and you don’t want your telescope glowing in the light you want to see. In this case, the hydrogen keeps WISE’s cameras at a bone-crushing 8 Kelvin, or -445° F.

You can read more about this in my earlier post about WISE. My congrats to the team!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: infrared, WISE

Comments (26)

Links to this Post

  1. First image from WISE « For the Sake of Science | January 8, 2010
  1. Matt G.

    Look at how sharp those diffusion spikes are! Well done, WISE guys!

  2. Chris

    “you don’t want your telescope slowing in the light you want to see”
    I think you mean “glowing”

  3. Donnageddon

    It’s full of stars!

  4. Are 3.4 microns, 4.6 microns, 12 microns the wavelength peaks of any of the standard filter bands? E.g. the bands used for measuring the I, J, or L magnitudes?

  5. gopher65
  6. Acronym Jim

    “It may not look as pretty as a Hubble or Spitzer shot at first glance”

    I beg to differ Phil. It looks quite pretty and seasonally appropriate to me. Is the pink one the star of Bethlehem?

    [ducks flying tomatoes]

  7. StevoR

    Excellent news! 😀

    Looking forward to many more to come.

    Have they done any scientific analysis on this picture yet?

    What is the bright-ish pink haloed star there? It’s not Eta Carinae I’m sure (no double lobes – really looking forward to seeing that imaged via WISE) & surely not bright enough to be Canopus (Alpha Carinae) or Miaplacidus (Beta Carinae) or another of the brighter stars although given its seen in infra-red & not visible light guess I can’t be sure.

    Anyone recognise that patch of sky or otherwise know the specific stars identity & care to enlighten us all?

  8. That is simply lovely. Due to the frequencies involved, I like to think that is roughly what the galaxy looks like when you look forward from a ship traveling at relativistic speeds (fast enough that IR gets blue-shifted into the visible). Of course, the view to the rear would be very different, and the view to the sides would just be a normal visible-light view only compressed along the direction of travel.

  9. Brian137

    Wow! Gorgeous! Thanx Phil.

  10. Petrolonfire

    In this case, the hydrogen keeps WISE’s cameras at a bone-crushing 8 Kelvin, or -445° F.

    Bone crushing or bone freezing? C-c-c–c-old! & U thought it was chilly outside right now. 😉

    Cool news BA, it looks like a WISE choice to me & well done to those WISE guys! 8)

  11. Dominic Benford

    I’ll try, unofficially and informally, to answer some of the questions I’ve seen here. First of all, the wavelengths are not standard filters but have been selected to enable differentiation of objects based on their colors (i.e., to distinguish a brown dwarf from a normal star from a galaxy). There’s also a 22 micron band, but you can’t easily display a four-color image on everybody’s RGB monitors!

    The image was taken purely for engineering work — things like optical alignment — and is not expected to be used for the primary science mission. WISE will cover this field many times later during regular operations, and science-quality data will come from that.

    The image is of V482 Carinae, a old, variable star — not nearly as famous as Eta Carinae, but a little like that.

  12. StevoR

    @Dominic Benford ^ Thanks! :-)

    If I could enquire further, what’s V484’s Carinae’s spectral class & basic nature – is it also a hypergiant or supergiant star?

    Oh & are you any relation of the SF writer Gregory Benford? (I love his books!)
    See :

    Also assuming you are one of the scientists from WISE which is the impression I’m getting – please convey my thanks and congratulations to y’all! 😀

  13. Pi-needles

    From the “First Light for WISE” linked page at the top here.

    This infrared snapshot of a region in the constellation Carina near the Milky Way was taken shortly after NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) ejected its cover.

    So WISE’s cover has been blown?! What is it really then? 😉

  14. Dominic Benford

    @SteveoR: Happy to help!

    I don’t know much about V482 Car; I’m not an expert in stars. It’s a variable star, and is a cool (V mag about 6, K mag about 1) old giant. Yes, Gregory Benford is my uncle; physics runs in the family! And yes, I’m a member of the WISE Science Team and have been staffing the WISE booth at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week in Washington, where the first light press conference was held. I looked online to see how many journalists/bloggers mentioned WISE yesterday evening and came across this active discussion.

    Finally, thanks for your words of congratulations — on behalf of the great number of engineers, scientists, technicians, managers, administrators, etc. who put WISE together and got it working. Its success is a testament to the capable teams at NASA/JPL & Caltech, Space Dynamics Lab in Logan, Ball Aerospace in Denver, the launch team at Vandenburg AFB in Lompoc, the WISE scientists across the country, and many others.

  15. Wow that is cool!

    You know what is also cool? I had to kill an hour at O’Hare yesterday and decided to get some exercise walking down to the connecting hallway between the terminals. Normally boring right?

    Not really this time. Something like 50 or so utterly stunning astronomy pics were put up along the wall from that global IYA/Adler effort. There were literally close to a hundred different people gawking at them.

    My guess, just from overhearing their conversations, is that none of them have ever seen anything like that display (which is actually a bit sad but still meaningful). It runs the whole length of the hall.

    Epic win for science outreach. Brilliant.

  16. Arch Duke Ferdinand

    Anybody heard of star ‘T Pyxidis’ ? Evidently it is going supernova in the near future and its only 3260 light years away.

  17. Strangel

    How very philling and cromulent! TY!

  18. StevoR

    @ 14 Domenic Benford : Cheers! I know there are a lot of people who work very hard to bring us these images & I’d like them to know its really appreciated & folks like me love seeing & hearing about it. Bet they love their jobs! 😉

    Great to hear Greg Benford is your uncle too. Just awesome! 😀

    Those that haven’t already seen it may want to check out the WISE missions facebook page as well :

    I’ve already posted a link to this thread there in one of my comments.

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 16. Arch Duke Ferdinand Says:

    Anybody heard of star ‘T Pyxidis’ ? Evidently it is going supernova in the near future and its only 3260 light years away.

    I have indeed. It is a recurrent nova in Pyxis ( – one of two constellations representing the compass along with Circinus, ( ) both in the southern skies. Collins Guide to Stars & planets (Ridpath &Tirion, 2007) notes :

    “T Pyx, 9hr 05m -32 degrees.4 is a recurrent nova that has undergone five recorded eruptions, in 1890, 1902, 1920, 1944 and 1966. Normally it is of mag. 14, but brightens to 6th or 7th magnitude. Further outbursts may be expected.”

    Or see :

    It can perhaps be roughly located being on a diagonal line with Canopus (Alpha Carinae) & Alphard (Alpha Hydrae) and is, I’d presume, a white dwarf accumulating mass from a companion star.

    Hmm .. couple of astronomical anniversaries then for its 1920 (90 years ago) & 1890 (120 yrs) outbursts.
    Not exactly sure why its relevant here – have you noted T Pyxidis erupting or heard WISE will be looking at it? Interesting though. :-)

  20. ND

    Are there any possible uses for the telescope after the hydrogen is spent?

  21. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 16. Arch Duke Ferdinand Says:

    Anybody heard of star ‘T Pyxidis’ ? Evidently it is going supernova in the near future and its only 3260 light years away.

    The AAVSO page ( ) lists it as being 6,000 light years distant not 3,260 although I guess distance figures can vary almost as much as the stars in question! 😉

    It also notes T Pyx holds the record for number of eruptions & that it is overdue for a nova blast. I’d love to see that star detonate although I suspect a big nova is more likely than a full-blown (pardon the pun) supernova eruption although you never know! 😉

    The Milky Way is overdue for a supernova, I think? Albeit there may have been one or two that we missed behind dense dust clouds or in the wrong part of our Galaxy for our perusal. I’d love to see a bright nearby supernova in my lifetime! (Just not *too* nearby & thus bringing “death from the skies” of course! 😉 )

    So have you observed T Pyx brightening or anything like that? Anyone know if its in outburst?

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That is kelvin of course. The person was Kelvin. You wouldn’t say Ampere or Ohm, now would you? … oh, you are american, of course you would!

    US will accept the international system (SI), degree by degree. 😀

  23. Dominic Benford

    @ND: Yes, WISE can operate after the solid hydrogen runs out. The telescope will warm up to a temperature that is still cold enough to operate its shorter two wavelengths (3.4 and 4.6 microns) with minimal degradation. The WISE team will propose to NASA an observing plan to cover additional observations of the sky with those two bands, in order to increase the overall sensitivity and to look for things that change (position and/or brightness) between epochs.

  24. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Aha! So that’s what that was what all that stuff about T Pyxidis was about – I see the BA’s just commented on it here:


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