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WISE: Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer
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WISE Aitoff projection of the Milky Way in near infared
An image of the entire sky as seen in near infrared light centered on the Milky Way and shown in aitoff projection. This image was compiled from the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS).
For thousands of years astronomers have been meticulously mapping the sky. Star charts of ancient Babylonian and Chinese astronomers, made by observing carefully with the naked eye and recording the information in stone tablets, survive to this day. The reason for mapping the sky is simple: to see what’s out there and where we are within it.

In modern times, astronomers use telescopes to survey the entire sky in multiple wavelengths of light. These all-sky surveys are fundamental to astronomy, providing the sources that define the normal Universe and giving the context to reveal and understand the interesting abnormal objects. Sensitive all-sky surveys across the electromagnetic spectrum are imminent or have recently been completed, but a major gap remains in the mid-infrared. WISE will fill that gap, mapping the entire sky in wavelengths of light from 3.5 – 23 microns during the first 6 months of the mission.

All-sky surveys at all wavelengths have been essential for the efficient use of large telescopes and creating new fields of study. For example, the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS) led to many different catalogs of celestial objects found in the survey, such as the Abell Catalog of Galaxy Clusters. These catalogs have provided the targets for detailed follow-up observations using big, narrow-field-of-view telescopes such as the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii, or the Hubble Space Telescope. Also, the all-sky survey done by NASA's IRAS mission spawned new fields of research into objects such as ULIRGs and starburst galaxies.

Milky Way shown ininfrared light
An image of the entire sky as seen in infrared light centered on the Milky Way and shown in aitoff projection. This image was compiled from observations of NASA's Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).
All-sky surveys are also an efficient way to produce scientific results. A fast, shallow survey will find more astronomical sources than a targeted search. Plus, bright, nearby sources found in an all-sky survey are easier to follow up. This will be especially important for parallax and proper motion studies of cool brown dwarfs to determine their spatial distribution. Additionally, a survey covering a large area provides a valuable database for later research. The POSS has define the visible sky for almost 50 years, and today Web-based servers handle thousands of requests for POSS data daily.

At the completion of WISE’s mission, the project will publish a catalogue of sources identified in the all-sky survey. This catalogue will serve as an essential source of targets to be investigated by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch at the beginning of the next decade.

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