Multimedia presentation on WISE - overall mission, how infrared works, brown dwarfs, etc.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In late April the WISE team added a multimedia presentation to the site explaining the overall mission, including some basic concepts of why infrared is important, the previous infrared mission compared to WISE (the previous one happened in 1983 and had a resolution of 62 pixels compared to WISE which has 4 million) asteroid hunting, the discovery of brown dwarf stars, etc. It doesn't include any recent news so those following the mission closely won't find anything new, but it is a good link to send someone who hasn't heard of the mission before.

The section on brown dwarfs also shows a view of what we currently know of the nearest stars to us compared to what we expect to know after the mission is over, with new brown dwarf stars in red:



It also includes this part on possible (probably) planetary systems around brown dwarfs, mentioning that "in fact, the first planetary system that humans ever reach is likely to be around a brown dwarf discovered by WISE."

On that note, it may be important to refer to brown dwarfs as brown dwarf stars as much as possible, even though technically they are sub-stellar objects (fusing deuterium and sometimes lithium, but not hydrogen). The reason why is that names and titles really do matter in astronomy and space exploration. When Ceres was first discovered it was considered to be a planet and was even given a planetary symbol, but then later on it was reclassified as an asteroid. Then what happened? Everybody forgot about Ceres. After all, it was just an asteroid. Missions were sent out to the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Jupiter again, Saturn again, Venus and Mars again and again and again and again, but no missions were ever sent to Ceres, not until Dawn launched a few years back (it will arrive there in 2015). Had Ceres been considered a planet all this time (and yes, a dwarf planet is a kind of planet) it's safe to say it would have been given higher priority, certainly at least one mission or at least a flyby before now.

Brown dwarfs are the same. Too much focus on calling it a sub-stellar object in the mainstream press will certainly result in less interest than simply calling one a brown dwarf star. An object sounds tiny, unimportant, scientifically interesting but not the least bit exciting. A star, however, that's an entirely different matter. Smaller and cooler than our own, but a type of star nonetheless. So when one is finally discovered closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri (assuming it happens), be sure to fit the word star in there a few times in your blog and forum posts in order to maximize the impact it will make.

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