Despite a minor glitch that led NASA to delay the launch of its new Wide-Field Infrared Sky Explorer (WISE) telescope twice, the craft blasted off smoothly Monday at 9:09 a.m. EST from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The telescope was launched into space on a Delta-2 rocket, which produces about 200,000 pounds of thrust, and propelled the craft at over 15,000 miles per hour. Delta quickly broken the sound barrier, rapidly accelerating on the power of its first stage main engine and the three ground-lit strap-on solid-fuel boosters.
The $320 million WISE telescope has an ambitious 10-month mission to map the entire sky in infrared in unprecedented detail. Once in orbit above Earth, the observatory is expected to scan the sky 1 1/2 times in nine months before completing its mission.
"Mission managers implemented a plan to completely resolve the anomaly," NASA officials said in a status update last week. That plan included removing a suspect part in the steering thruster on WISE's Delta 2 rocket and replacing it with a new one.
Scientists have said the infrared-scanning WISE is capable of detecting objects that would otherwise be hidden to visible light instruments.
Among their targets: dark asteroids lurking in the solar system; oddball brown dwarfs that are neither stars, nor planets; and distant galaxies that shine ultra-bright in infrared, but are invisible to visible light instruments because they are shrouded by interstellar dust.
Cataloging hard-to-spot asteroids within the solar system is vital to safeguarding the Earth, researchers said. "We can help protect our Earth by learning more about the diversity of potentially hazardous asteroids and comets," said Amy Mainzer, deputy project scientist for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
While weather forecasts have been gloomy for WISE's launch windows this week, there is an 80 percent chance of pristine conditions for Monday's attempt, mission managers said.
Copyright © 2009 Space.com. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.