NASA takes a 12-year time-lapse of the entire sky

The NEOWISE observatory has put their shots together in a project to better understand the Universe.


NASA has created what is essentially a time- lapse movie of the sky, revealing changes spanning a decade, using images taken by its NEOWISE space observatory .

Every six months, the Near-Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft completes a trip to the middle of the Sun, taking images in all directions.

Together, those images form an “all-sky” map that shows the location and brightness of hundreds of millions of objects. Using 18 all-sky maps produced by the spacecraft (the 19th and 20th will be released in March 2023), the film has been created, available on Youtube.

the sky maps

Each map is a great resource for astronomers, but when viewed in sequence as a time lapse, they serve as an even stronger resource for trying to better understand the universe. Comparing the maps can reveal distant objects that have changed position or brightness over time, known as time-domain astronomy.

“If you go out and look at the night sky, it may seem like nothing ever changes, but that’s not the case,” Amy Mainzer, principal investigator for NEOWISE at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. “Stars are shining and exploding. Asteroids are whizzing by. Black holes are tearing stars apart. The universe is a very busy and active place.”

NEOWISE was originally a data processing project to retrieve asteroid detections and features from WISE, an observatory launched in 2009 tasked with scanning the entire sky to find and study objects outside our solar system. The spacecraft used cryogenically cooled detectors that made them sensitive to infrared light.

Not visible to the human eye, infrared light is radiated by a plethora of cosmic objects, including nearby cool stars and some of the most luminous galaxies in the universe. The WISE mission ended in 2011 after the onboard coolant needed for some infrared observations ran out, but the spacecraft and some of its infrared detectors were still functional. So in 2013, NASA repurposed it to track asteroids and other near-Earth objects, or NEOs. Both the mission and the spacecraft were given a new name: NEOWISE .