March 1, 1999
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.
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.
Hubble finds remains of 'galactic cannibalism'
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