NASA unveiled Jan. 6 the first image taken by its newest space telescope, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), shortly after it ejected its protective lens cover. The first-light picture, released during the annual American Astronomical Society in Washington, shows thousands of stars and covers an area three times the size of the Moon. WISE is expected to take more than a million similar pictures covering the whole sky before the frozen hydrogen that keeps its instrument cold runs out, an event expected to occur in October 2010. NASA says the telescope’s first sky survey will be completed in six months, followed by a second scan of one-half of the sky lasting three months. A preliminary set of survey images is targeted for release in April 2011 with the final sky atlas and catalog expected to be released in March 2012. NASA, however, plans to periodically release selected images starting in February.

Launched Dec. 14 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base atop a Delta 2 rocket, the WISE spacecraft was built by Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. Its science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.