The ambition behind the WISE mission was large: No less than to map the entire sky. The craft was launched into space in Dec. 2009 and sent back images of 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids and 133 near-Earth objects before going into hibernation this past February after running out of frozen hydrogen coolant.
Now the archive is being opened to the public. So far, about 57% of the data sent back can be viewed online. The remainder of the data will come online in the spring of 2012. You can find instructions on how to access the archive here.
In this remarkable image released on Thursday, you can make out Betelgeuse, the blue star in the lower left. At the center of the image, you can see the star Lambda Orionis (the red one) hovering in a cloud that measures some 130 light years in diameter. (It also is one of the largest star-forming regions WISE has seen.) According to Greek mythology, Orion was a hunter whose vanity so angered the goddess Artemis that he was banished to the sky.
Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex
WISE's infrared telescopes have taken more than 2.7 million images. This image shows the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, one of the nearest star-forming regions to Earth. The white nebula in the center of the image is glowing because of heat generated by nearby stars.
Zeta Ophiuchi, the blue star near the center of this image, is 65,000 times more luminous than our sun. Astronomers believe that this massive star was once part of a binary star system with an even more massive partner which exploded as a supernova. That cataclysmic event freed Zeta Ophiuchi from its partner's pull and sent it speeding into space at a clip of 54,000 miles per hour.
Two galaxies, Messier 81 and Messier 82, which have approached the other throughout the course of time, are expected eventually to merge into a single galaxy. WISE took a picture of one of their more recent encounters, which led to a burst of star formation visible in both galaxies.
A two-dimensional projection of the whole sky. The fuzzy line down the middle is our Milky Way galaxy.
An intriguing composite image of a planetary nebula 800 light-years away, known as NGC 1514, in which WISE photographed a pair of stars at different points in their lives. While one star was dying, the other was contracting into a dense body called a white dwarf. The shot on the left is from a ground-based, visible-light telescope; the other shows the object in infrared light.