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Scientists unveil their infrared sky

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer produced this infrared view of the entire sky.

How would the sky look through infrared eyes? The scientists behind NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission have served up that kind of view with an all-sky map of infrared wavelengths, centered on the glowing Milky Way.

The map was unveiled this week to mark the completion of WISE's infrared sky atlas, more than two years after the $320 million mission was launched. The telescope collected more than 2.7 million images in four infrared wavelengths and sent down more than 15 trillion bytes of data. The WISE spacecraft was shut down a year ago, after surveying the entire sky one and a half times, but scientists needed still more time to analyze and organize the data.

The images were combined into an atlas of more than 18,000 images. The atlas is accompanied by a catalog listing the infrared properties of more than 560 million individual objects, ranging from near-Earth asteroids to far-flung galaxies. Wednesday's release of the catalog meets the fundamental objective of a mission that was conceived in 1998.

"Today, WISE delivers the fruit of 14 years of effort to the astronomical community," UCLA astronomer Edward Wright, the mission's principal investigator, said in a NASA news release.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

This annotated version of the all-sky infrared map points out some of the main attractions. In addition, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter can be seen as stretched-out red spots far off the galactic plane, at roughly the 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock and 7 o'clock, respectively.

Over the past two years, WISE's science team has discovered the first examples of an ultra-cool class of stars known as Y-dwarfs, found the first Trojan asteroid to share Earth's orbit, and came up with a downsized estimate of the number of asteroids with a chance of threatening our planet. But the WISE team isn't done yet: Scientists will spend years poring over the data contained in the newly released catalog. And you can try your hand as well, although for most people, this gallery of WISE highlights should suffice.

Weekend goodies:

 WISE's all-sky image served as this week's "Where in the Cosmos" picture quiz on the Cosmic Log Facebook page, and it didn't take more than a few minutes for Eloid Ruiz to report what the picture showed. Eloid will be receiving a pair of 3-D glasses with my compliments (and an assist from Microsoft Research's World Wide Telescope project). Stay tuned next week for the next "Where in the Cosmos" puzzler — and while you're waiting, tune in the Weekly Space Hangout, a week-in-review webcast hosted by Universe Today's Fraser Cain.

In the March 15 episode of the Weekly Space Hangout, we talk about SpaceX, deflecting asteroids with nukes, and sighting Russian artifacts on the moon.

More wonders from WISE:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.