Although NASA seems to grab all the space-exploration headlines these days, the scientific spacecraft of other nations have been returning some amazing results recently. The latest example comes from Akari, aka "Astro F", built and launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) with help from the European Space Agency (ESA).
Akari, which means "light" in Japanese, reached orbit in February 2006 and has been surveying the universe in six infrared "colors" (wavelength bands) for the past year. Its business end is a telescope with a 26-inch (65-cm) aperture and a nest of detectors, all of which are bottled up inside a giant Thermos and chilled by liquid helium to within 11° F (6 K) of absolute zero. The oddsmakers at JAXA think the liquid helium should last until mid-September, though some observations will continue even after the tank runs dry.
This past week JAXA and ESA scientists unveiled what they've got so far: a map covering 90% of the sky. It's the first new survey of the mid-infrared sky (recorded at 9 microns) in more than 20 years. And it's brimming with luscious detail. You can click on the image here to get a little bit better view, but to explore the map in all its richness, check out the bigger versions and detailed descriptions on ESA's website.