NASA's $320 million space observatory successfully launched Monday with a mission to scan the skies for new celestial objects in infrared light.

Called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, the new telescope will scan the heavens for six months. NASA hopes to discover new near-Earth asteroids and dim stars such as brown dwarfs that may have eluded other telescopes.

"The infrared is important to us in astronomy because it shows us where the cool things are in the universe, things much cooler than the sun," Jon Morse, director of astrophysics at NASA, said during a pre-launch briefing last week. "The universe looks much different in infrared."

Potential threats to Earth in the form of asteroids and comets are a constant concern, especially since some could remain undetected until it's too late. "We're going to learn a lot about the risks associated with the near-Earth object population," said Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Not to overstate the risk, but it's not a trivial risk either. After all the dinosaurs, we believe, were wiped out by a fairly large asteroid."

With a successful launch now behind them, NASA's next step is two weeks of preparation to open the "eye". If everything goes according to plan, WISE should be grabbing more than 5,700 pictures per day before the new year.


Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

NASA launches new sky-mapping telescope
Infrared telescope to survey the entire heavens, scan for asteroids.