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How WISE Works

This artist's concept shows the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE spacecraft, in its orbit around Earth.
This artist's concept shows the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE spacecraft, in its orbit around Earth.

If you grew up in the era of the Apollo program, the space shuttles and the Hubble telescope, you're probably accustomed to thinking of space exploration as involving pieces of hardware with astonishing price tags, single, narrowly focused missions and short life expectancies. But in an era in which NASA is under increasingly tough budgetary pressure, today's space scientists no longer have a blank check to explore the cosmos. Instead, they've got to use their ingenuity to make the most of limited resources—for example, by bringing a mothballed satellite out of hibernation and repurposing it for a new mission.

That's exactly what NASA is doing with the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

When the $320 million orbital telescope was launched in December 2009, its original mission was to search for infrared radiation coming from distant objects — from asteroids to exotic brown dwarf stars — that were too faint to be observed within the visible light spectrum [sources: Chow, Klotz]. Over the 13 months that followed, WISE did a bang-up job at that task, cataloging 560 million celestial objects. In addition to stars and galaxies, WISE discovered 19 previously unseen comets and more than 33,500 asteroids [source: Chow]. Eventually, after WISE completed its work, NASA scientists powered down most of the satellite's electronics and left it in orbit in hibernation in February 2011 [source:].

But as it turns out, WISE isn't through yet. In August 2013, NASA announced that it was re-activating the satellite for a new, three-year mission. Instead of probing the distant reaches of space, WISE will search for and study near-Earth objects (NEOs)— space rocks that can be found orbiting within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) of our planet's path around the sun, which scientists say is close enough for them to pose a danger of colliding with us. In addition, WISE will help NASA identify asteroids that might be good potential destinations for astronauts, as part of U.S. President Barack Obama's goal of sending humans to visit a captured asteroid by 2025 [source: NASA].

In its new role, WISE has the potential to make some very important discoveries — and to do it cheaply, at a cost of just $5 million for each additional year of operation [source: Klotz].

In this article, we'll talk about WISE's exciting new job, as well as some of the amazing things that the satellite has already accomplished.