Watch this 12-year time-lapse movie of the entire sky courtesy of NASA
It’s not every day that you get to see the entire sky, much less over a span of 12 years. However, now NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE, spacecraft (not to be confused with the comet) has produced just such a video, according to a press release by NASA published on Tuesday.
Images taken in all directions
Every six months, NEOWISE undertakes a trip halfway around the Sun, taking images in all directions. Astronomers have now stitched together those images to produce an “all-sky” map showing the location and brightness of hundreds of millions of objects and revealing changes that span a decade.
Each map on its own provides plenty of data for astronomers, but when viewed in sequence as a time-lapse, they serve as an even stronger resource for trying to better understand the universe by comparing changes in the maps.
“If you go outside and look at the night sky, it might seem like nothing ever changes, but that’s not the case,” said Amy Mainzer, principal investigator for NEOWISE at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Stars are flaring and exploding. Asteroids are whizzing by. Black holes are tearing stars apart. The universe is a really busy, active place.”
In its inception, NEOWISE was tasked with retrieving asteroid detections and characteristics from WISE (an observatory launched in 2009). The tool made use of cryogenically cooled detectors that made them sensitive to infrared light.
Infrared light is radiated by many cosmic objects but is not visible to the human eye. The WISE mission saw its lifespan end in 2011 when its onboard coolant ran out. However, its spacecraft and some of its infrared detectors were still functional.
Never wanting to let some good instruments go to waste, in 2013, NASA repurposed WISE to track asteroids and other near-Earth objects and that’s how NEOWISE was born.
Now, the spacecraft has been watching the sky change for more than a decade and has also contributed to studies of how stars form. NEOWISE has the unique ability to see into the dusty blankets swaddling protostars, or into the balls of hot gas that are well on their way to becoming stars.
Long-term monitoring of protostars
Today, astronomers are conducting long-term monitoring of almost 1,000 protostars with NEOWISE to gain insights into the early stages of star formation.
But that’s not all. Data collected from NEOWISE’ has also improved understanding of black holes. In more recent research, scientists have combined NEOWISE data and a technique called echo mapping to measure the size of disks of hot, glowing gas surrounding distant black holes, which are too small and too distant for any telescope to identify or image..
“We never anticipated that the spacecraft would be operating this long, and I don’t think we could have anticipated the science we’d be able to do with this much data,” said Peter Eisenhardt, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and WISE project scientist.
If you doubt NEOWISE’s incredible abilities, just watch the mesmerizing video of our entire sky.
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