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NASA Facts Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) Surveying Starburst Galaxies

NASA Facts Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) Surveying Starburst Galaxies

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Feb 18, 2011
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National Aeronautics andSpace Administration
Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt, Maryland 20771(301) 286-8955
stages in its life cycle. WIRE will survey a “forest”of star-forming regions by observing entire galaxiesrather than individual stars. It will take the starformation inventory of 100,000 galaxies within aregion of the sky equal to 5,000 times the area of thefull moon, or between two and three percent of thecelestial sphere. This large area may allow WIRE todetect rare objects or new phenomena within itsbrief, 4-month planned mission.WIRE will concentrate its observations onstarburst galaxies, extremely bright galaxies that areproducing new stars at ten times the rate of typicalgalaxies. It will also search for ultra-luminousgalaxies, very energetic, possibly extremely distantgalaxies with intense star formation. WIRE willexamine the remote universe to determine the large-scale distribution of galaxies, which will be used totest competing theories of galaxy evolution.Some of the ultraluminous galaxies may bebillions of light years away, possibly representingthe first galaxies to form.WIRE will also make observations closer tohome. It will look into the star-forming regions inour own galaxy. It will also help to discover the
The Scientific Mission
One goal of NASA’s Origins Program seeks tounderstand how life arose on Earth, and to determineif life exists anywhere else in the universe. In orderto understand the origin of life, it is necessary tounderstand the origin of stars because stars, such asour own Sun, make life possible on planets such asEarth. The goal of NASA’s Wide-Field InfraredExplorer (WIRE) spacecraft is to understand thehistory of star formation in the universe.Current observations suggest that stars and theirplanetary systems form when massive interstellarclouds of gas and dust collapse. Thus, most star-forming regions are shrouded by dusty clouds thatblock the visible and ultraviolet light emitted byyoung stars and are warmed by the process. Thismakes the star formation process very complicatedto interpret using ordinary visible light telescopes.However, the warm dust can emit prodigiousamounts of infrared light, which the WIRE telescopecan detect. Light of this type is not visible to thehuman eye, and is perceived as heat.Although the star formation process is brief byastronomical time scales, it is extremely longcompared to human experience, lasting perhaps afew tens of millions of years. No human observationcould ever view a single star through all its birthphases. Thus, WIRE will make observations of vastcollections of stars in different phases, with theintention of providing enough data to assemble ahistory of stellar formation. This is similar to howbotanists study tree growth. It would be impracticalto observe a single tree throughout its entire lifetime,so botanists survey an entire forest, expecting to finddifferent examples of a certain species at different
structure of our galaxy. The galaxy is shaped like adisk, and we are located near one outer edge. Thismakes it difficult to determine the galaxy’s structure,because dust clouds in the inner portions of the disk block our view. Since WIRE can see through thoseclouds, it will help determine galactic structure.WIRE will search for a kind of “failed” star,called a brown dwarf. Brown dwarfs are relativelysmall objects that shine faintly, mostly in infraredlight. However, they do not shine for the samereasons that a normal star shines. A normal starshines because of energy supplied by nuclear fusionreactions in its central core. Brown dwarfs, at onlyabout 80 times as massive as Jupiter, have too littlemass to sustain nuclear fusion reactions in theircores. Instead, they glow dimly with the heat leftover from contraction begun during their formation.WIRE should be able to detect their feeble light outto a distance of about 35 light-years away.When a star forms from a collapsing cloud, itoften is surrounded by a disk of material from thatcloud. It is believed that planets form out of thematerial in these disks. The circumstellar disksabsorb light from the star and radiate it again asinfrared light. WIRE will thus be able to scan starsfor circumstellar disks, possibly finding clues toplanet formation.WIRE will look within our own solar system aswell. It will take an inventory of main belt asteroidsto determine if there is an increase in the number of smaller ones (less than 1.25 miles across) as pre-dicted by some theories. It will also observe comettrails, dust that has been ablated from comets as theirorbit takes them close to the Sun and exposes themto strong solar radiation. As the Earth progresses inits orbit, it occasionally intersects a comet trail. Theresult is often a spectacular meteor shower, as thehigh-speed dust grains burn up harmlessly in ouratmosphere. However, as our satellite constellationgrows, these showers become an increasing concern.If the shower is particularly intense, the satellitescould be “sandblasted” by the dust. Although lesscommon, impacts with the larger grains pose agreater threat because the impact vaporizes the grainand the tiny impact area on the satellite, forming acloud of electrically charged gas called plasma thatcan short-circuit sensitive electronic components.
The Instrument
The WIRE instrument is provided to GoddardSpace Flight Center (GSFC) by NASA’s Jet Propul-sion Laboratory (JPL). The WIRE instrumentconsists of a 30-centimeter aperture (12.5-inch)Cassegrain telescope with no moving parts and afield of view about the size of the full moon.The telescope is provided by Utah StateUniversity’s Space Dynamic Laboratory and isenclosed within a two-stage, state-of-the-art, solid-hydrogen cryostat designed and manufactured byLockheed-Martin Advanced Technology Center.The WIRE cryostat uses the sublimation (transitiondirectly from solid to gas) of frozen hydrogen tocool the telescope. The cryostat is designed like athermos bottle, using a vacuum space between layersof insulation, to minimize heat flow to the inside.The telescope mirrors are cooled to less than 13Kelvin (K) (-436 F) and the focal plane arrays arecooled to less than 7 K (-447 F) using only 4.5kilograms (9.9 pounds) of solid hydrogen. Thetelescope must be cold so that its own infrared lightdoesn’t overwhelm the light that it is trying to detectfrom space.The Boeing/Rockwell long-wave infrareddetectors used by WIRE provide a two-color view of science targets at infrared wavelengths of 12 and 25microns (a micron, mm, is one millionth of a meter).Infrared light has a wavelength longer than the lightwe can see. We can feel infrared radiation—thewarmth of the Sun or a fire is caused by the infraredlight being absorbed by our skin. Visible light has awavelength between .4 mm and .7 mm, and infraredlight has a wavelength between .7 mm and 1000mm. A television remote control typically operatesin the near infrared around 1 mm. Objects at roomtemperature emit infrared light with a peak around10 mm. WIRE is studying objects which are colderthan that—25 mm corresponds to a temperature of about 116 K (-251 F).The entire WIRE instrument requires only 28watts of power and a relatively low average sciencedata rate (11,000 bits per second) to complete itsscience objectives.
Telescope mirror assembly.
The Spacecraft
Once the WIRE instrument was delivered toGSFC in Greenbelt, MD, it was integrated onto athree-axis-stabilized spacecraft designed and built bythe GSFC Small Explorer (SMEX) Project Team.The spacecraft makes use of state-of-the-art struc-tural composites and modular solar array technolo-gies to minimize mass, as well as an elaborateAttitude Control System (ACS) to permit verystable, repeatable astronomical observations to bemade over extended periods of time.The WIRE structure, built by Composite OpticsIncorporated in San Diego, CA, is composed of flatpieces of graphite epoxy material bonded intoreaction wheels spin continually throughout themission. To point the instrument toward a newtarget, the spacecraft changes the speed of thewheels, which causes an equal and opposite reactionin the spacecraft body. The spacecraft again changesthe speed of the wheels to stop at the next target. Tocounteract small external disturbances that wouldeventually cause the spacecraft to tumble, such asatmospheric drag, the ACS uses electromagnets thatpush against the Earth’s magnetic field. The actua-tors are controlled by software running on a radia-tion-tolerant 80386 processor with 387 mathcoprocessor. All electronics that fly in space must beable to handle occasional impacts of high-energyprotons as well as the gradual accumulation of hitsfrom lower energy particles.To communicate with the ground, the spacecraftuses a radio that operates in the microwave fre-quency band. The two communication antennas,which are located on the ends of the solar arrays,provide coverage no matter where the spacecraft ispointed. Ground stations in Poker Flat, AK; WallopsIsland, VA; and McMurdo, Antarctica, relay databetween the spacecraft and the control center atGSFC. The spacecraft is in view of any groundstation for only about 10 minutes, but the two polarground stations provide two contacts for almostevery one of the 90-minute orbits. After the initialcheckout of the spacecraft, which takes a couple of weeks, only two contacts per day are necessary toretrieve all of the data collected during the day. Thespacecraft stores data in its 240 Mbyte recorder untilit has contact with a ground station.The solar arrays generate all of the electricalpower the spacecraft needs directly from the sun-light. A 28-volt, nickel-cadmium, rechargeablebattery, which weighs 26 lbs, provides power duringinitial acquisition after launch and during any eclipseperiods, when solar power is unavailable.
WIRE’s Orbit
After the WIRE spacecraft is integrated with thePegasus XL launch vehicle and loaded with solidhydrogen at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, WIREwill be carried under the belly of a Lockheed L-1011aircraft to an altitude of approximately 39,000 feet.From this altitude, the Pegasus rocket will belaunched and subsequently place the WIRE space-craft into a nearly polar, circular orbit 540 kilome-ters (335 miles) above the Earth.strong, light-weight, ribbed components. The elec-tronics boxes are bolted to the inside face of theequipment panels, which are around the outside of the spacecraft. Special high-thermal-conductivitycomposite spreads the heat on each equipment panel,controlling the temperature of the attached electron-ics box. The solar panel structure is also compositewith individual modules bonded to an overall com-posite frame. The structure supports all of thespacecraft components, including the 188-lb instru-ment on top, and it must be strong enough to supportlaunch loads, which increase the weight of allcomponents by more than a factor of 10. The entirespacecraft weighs 563 lbs, but the structure weighsonly 57 lbs, thanks to composite materials.The ACS uses a star tracker and gyros for finemeasurement of the spacecraft pointing. Ultra-smooth-spinning reaction wheels control the attitudewith a stability of 0.0017 degrees, creating verysharp images of the starburst galaxies. The four
The WIRE observatory.

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