Seeing the sky in a whole new way

A recent trend in new astronomy satellites has been the advent of sky surveying as a primary mission. In the past, due to limitations in instrument design or lack of sensitivity, most astronomy satellites (like even the great Hubble Space Telescope) have focused their efforts on pointed observations. This observing mode maximizes sensitivity, and allows for a huge discovery potential. Unfortunately, it also means the observatory is likely to be pointed at exactly the wrong location when something interesting occurs.

The sky surveying mission, on the other hand, ostensibly trades sensitivity for sample completeness, giving scientists a much more complete view of the visible universe in many different energy regimes at the same time. This changes the playing field from discovery due to distance (more sensitive observations can see fainter/farther away objects) to discovery due to more complete information.

The next satellite to join this new breed of observatories is the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (aka WISE), launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 9 (launch window: 6:09:33 a.m. to 6:23:51 a.m. PST). This mission is designed to detect objects in the infrared (hence the name), and will detect sources both near and far. But by delivering regular observations of the entire sky, its discovery potential is (pardon the pun) astronomical. Combine the data from WISE with that of some of the other sky surveyors (like Fermi) and you get a gold mine of information about every location in the sky.

And the best part is, thanks to the massive improvements in space-borne detector technology in the past ten years, the sensitivity of these new, all-sky observatories is still absolutely stunning, significantly better than their pointed predecessors.

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