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Friday, March 5, 1999 Published at 15:55 GMT


WIRE launches on galactic mission

The Pegasus-XL rocket was not released from the plane

The Nasa satellite which will observe the formation of galaxies has been successfully launched into space.

The Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) had been delayed by a technical fault at just T-minus 45 seconds on Monday, but entered orbit at 0305 GMT on Friday.

[ image: WIRE will capture an infra-red map like this]
WIRE will capture an infra-red map like this
A Lockheed L-1011 aircraft took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 0156 GMT. On its top was a Pegasus-XL rocket containing the WIRE satellite.

The rocket was fired at 0256, at an altitude of 12,200 meters (40,260 feet). After soaring upwards for nine minutes, the rocket released Wire and the satellite began to deploy its solar arrays.

A few hours later, Nasa confirmed that communication contact had been made with Wire and that all was well. A "good" orbit had been achieved.

Big questions

Wire will be one of the smallest scientific satellites ever to be put into space but its task is a huge. It will attempt to answer some of the biggest questions about the Universe.

[ image: The detector will be kept super-cold to trap infra-red rays]
The detector will be kept super-cold to trap infra-red rays
It will detect galaxies being born and try to discover how they change through time. It will do this by investigating the formation of stars in distant parts of the Universe.

It will pay particular attention to "starburst galaxies" where stars are forming at a much higher rate than normal.

"Wire will provide us with a wealth of information which will get us closer to understanding how the universe could reach the point of forming Sun-like stars and Earth-like planets," said Dr Harley Thronson of Nasa.

Infra-red radiation

Wire will scan the sky with a field of view about the size of the full moon. Its state-of-the-art telescope and detector system measures infra-red radiation.

[ image: The satellite has
The satellite has "landmark" new cooling and imaging technology
It therefore needs to be cooled to -260 degrees centigrade using liquid hydrogen to maximise its sensitivity. The mission will end when the supply of coolant hydrogen runs out after about four months.

Wire has a telescope with a 30.5cm (12ins) mirror. The entire satellite could easily fit on the backseat of a small car and weighs 260kg (570lb).

As well as looking at star formation, its detectors will also conduct a search for luminous, dusty quasars that blazed brightly when the Universe was young.

Quasars are believed to be young galaxies with an intense point of light at their cores resulting from material falling into a black hole. If they are found in sufficient numbers these quasars will carry strong clues about the age and structure of the Universe.

Further aims of WIRE are to map star-forming regions within our own galaxy and hunt for small sub-stellar objects called "methane dwarfs". These bodies failed to gather the critical mass to become small stars and resemble more massive versions of the planet Jupiter.

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