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NASA to explore history of universe

Click here for a magnified version of this graphic
WIRE will spend four months making observations 340 miles above the Earth

CNN's Ann Kellan explains the mission
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Spacecraft to be launched Monday night

March 1, 1999
Web posted at: 2:20 p.m. EST (1920 GMT)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, California (CNN) -- NASA is set to launch a little spacecraft on a big mission.

The launch of the Wide Field Infra Red Explorer, known as WIRE, was scheduled for Monday night from Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles. Its mission: to study the history of star formation in the universe.

"The primary mission for WIRE is to look at starburst galaxies," said WIRE principal investigator Perry Hacking. "These are galaxies that are undergoing a burst of star formation."

The spacecraft scans for infrared light, which can't be seen with the naked eye. For scientists, infrared signals are a kind of beacon, pointing them to starburst galaxies, which emit a lot of that type of light.

"WIRE is designed to go after those young star-forming regions in distant galaxies and to trace the history of them back into the early universe," said Carol Lonsdale, manager of the project's science operations center.

solar system
WIRE will view entire galaxies to help determine how stars form  

Star formation creates a lot of dust, but infrared light can see through the dust, giving the scientists a peek at the stars beyond.

"WIRE represents the largest net, if you will, that's been cast in search of objects in the very early universe," said NASA Small Explorer Program manager Jim Watzin.

The $46 million spacecraft will also search for planets that could possibly sustain life.

Traveling at 5 miles per second, WIRE will end its mission when it its hydrogen-cooled telescope runs out of hydrogen, expected to be in about four months.

Correspondents Ann Kellan and Allard Beutel contributed to this report.

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Crew blasts off for Mir, may be last visit to space station
February 20, 1999
NASA aiming for Sunday launch of Stardust
February 6, 1999
NASA aims to collect a scoopful of stardust
January 13, 1999

NASA Home Page
Small Explorer: WIRE
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