How do Astronomers Precisely Determine Distances to Objects on the Other Side of the Milky Way Galaxy?

By studying light echoes, rings of x-rays observed around binary star system Circinus X-1

A light echo in X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has provided a rare opportunity to precisely measure the distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy. The rings exceed the field-of-view of Chandra’s detectors, resulting in a partial image of X-ray data. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz
The image above shows a light echo in x-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory which astronomers used to precisely measure the distance to a stellar object across the spiral disk of the Milky Way galaxy. The sizes of the light echoes detected in this image exceed the ability of the detectors, which has resulted in a partial construction of X-ray data. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz

Space news (astrophysics: measuring distances of objects; light echoes) – 30,700 light-years from Earth in the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy, observing X-rays emitted by a neutron star in double star system Circinus X-1 reflecting off massive, surrounding clouds of gas and dust –

The youngest member of an important class of objects has been found using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Australia Compact Telescope Array. A composite image shows the X-rays in blue and radio emission in purple, which have been overlaid on an optical field of view from the Digitized Sky Survey. This discovery, described in the press release, allows scientists to study a critical phase after a supernova and the birth of a neutron star.
The youngest member of an important class of objects has been found using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Australia Compact Telescope Array. A composite image shows the X-rays in blue and radio emission in purple, which have been overlaid on an optical field of view from the Digitized Sky Survey. This discovery allows scientists to study a critical phase after a supernova and the birth of a neutron star. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Determining the apparent distance of objects tens of thousands of light-years from Earth across the breadth of the Milky Way was a difficult problem to solve during the early days of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. During the years since these early days, astronomers have developed a few techniques and methods to help calculate distances to stellar objects on the other side of the galaxy. 

The most recently measured distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way used the newest method developed. By detecting the rings from X-ray light echoes around the star Circinus X-1, a double star system containing a neutron star. Astronomers were able to determine the apparent distance to this system is around 30,700 light-years from Earth.

“It’s really hard to get accurate distance measurements in astronomy and we only have a handful of methods,” said Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who led the study. “But just as bats use sonar to triangulate their location, we can use the X-rays from Circinus X-1 to figure out exactly where it is.”

 Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison
Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison Credits: University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The rings are faint echoes from an outburst of x-rays emitted by Circinus X-1 near the end of 2013. The x-rays reflected off of separate clouds of gas and dust surrounding the star system, with some being sent toward Earth. The reflected x-rays arrived from different angles over a three month period, which created the observed X-ray rings. Using radio data scientists were able to determine the distance to each cloud of gas and dust, while detected X-ray echoes and simple geometry allowed for an accurate measurement of the distance to Circinus X-1 from Earth.

“We like to call this system the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but this one has nothing to do with Sauron,” said co-author Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “The beautiful match between the Chandra X-ray rings and the Mopra radio images of the different clouds is really a first in astronomy.”

Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales Credits: University of New South Wales
Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales Credits: University of New South Wales

In addition to this new distance measurement to Circinus X-1, astrophysicists determined this binary system’s naturally brighter in X-rays and other light than previously thought. This points to a star system that has repeatedly passed the threshold of brightness where the outward pressure of emitted radiation is balanced by the inward force of gravity. Astronomers have witnessed this equilibrium more often in binary systems containing a black hole, not a neutron star as in this case. The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a

The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a relativistic jet produced by a system containing a black hole. Scientists are currently studying this to see if they can determine why this system has such an unusual blend of characteristics.  

“Circinus X-1 acts in some ways like a neutron star and in some like a black hole,” said co-author Catherine Braiding, also of the University of New South Wales. “It’s extremely unusual to find an object that has such a blend of these properties.”

Astronomers think Circinus X-1 started emitting X-rays observers on Earth could have detected starting about 2,500 years ago. If this is true, this X-ray binary system’s the youngest detected, so far, during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

This new X-ray data is being used to create a detailed three-dimensional map of the dust clouds between Circinus X-1 and Earth. 

What’s next?

Astrophysicists are preparing to measure distances to other stellar objects on the other side of the Milky Way using the latest distance measurement method. This new astronomy tool’s going to come in handy during the next leg of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Become a NASA Disk Detective and help classify embryonic planetary systems.

Read about the final goodbye of the Rosetta spacecraft, just before it crashes into the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Learn more about China’s contributions to the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Assess NASA’s contribution to the human journey to the beginning of space and time here.

Discover the Milky Way.

You can view the published results of this study in The Astrophysical Journal and online here.

Learn about astronomy at the University of Wisconsin.

Discover astronomy at the University of New South Wales.

Learn more about Circinus X-1.

Learn what NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown us about the cosmos here.

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NASA’s NuSTAR Pinpoints Elusive High-energy X-rays of Supermassive Black Holes in COSMOS Field

Heralding the growth of monster black holes pulling in surrounding material while belching out the cosmic x-ray background 

The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far. The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays, and were spotted by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts. Credits: NASA/Caltech/NuSTAR
The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far.
The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays,  and were spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts. Credits: NASA/Caltech/NuSTAR

Space news (astrophysics: x-ray bursts; detecting high-energy x-rays emitted by supermassive black holes) – searching the COSMOS field for elusive, high-energy x-rays with a high-pitched voice – 

The picture is a combination of infrared data from Spitzer (red) and visible-light data (blue and green) from Japan's Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These data were taken as part of the SPLASH (Spitzer large area survey with Hyper-Suprime-Cam) project. Credits: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Subaru
The picture is a combination of infrared data from Spitzer (red) and visible-light data (blue and green) from Japan’s Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These data were taken as part of the SPLASH (Spitzer large area survey with Hyper-Suprime-Cam) project. Credits: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Subaru

Astronomers searching for elusive, high-energy x-rays emitted by supermassive black holes recently made a discovery using NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). A chorus of high-energy x-rays emitted by millions of supermassive black holes hidden within the cores of galaxies spread across a field of galaxies called the COSMOS field. Singing the elusive, high-pitched song of a phenomenon scientists call the cosmic x-ray background they emitted when they pulled surrounding matter closer. A significant step in resolving the high-energy x-ray background and understanding more about the feeding habits of supermassive black holes as they grow and evolve. 

NuSTAR scans the sky looking at nine galaxies for supermassive black holes. Credits: NASA/NuSTAR/JPL/Caltech
NuSTAR scans the sky looking at nine galaxies for supermassive black holes. Credits: NASA/NuSTAR/JPL/Caltech

“We’ve gone from resolving just two percent of the high-energy X-ray background to 35 percent,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at Caltech in Pasadena and lead author of a new study describing the findings in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.  “We can see the most obscured black holes, hidden in thick gas and dust.” 

Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, has been awarded the top prize in high-energy astrophysics. Image credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marcomm
Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, has been awarded the top prize in high-energy astrophysics. Image credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marcomm

The Monster of the Milky Way, the supermassive black hole believed to reside at the core of our galaxy, bulked up by siphoning off surrounding gas and dust in the past and will continue to grow. The data obtained here by NASA’s NuSTAR will help scientists learn more concerning the growth and evolution of black holes and our host galaxy. It will also give astrophysicists more insight into the processes involved the next time the Monster of the Milky Way wakes up and decides to have a little snack. 

This image, not unlike a pointillist painting, shows the star-studded centre of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The crowded centre of our galaxy contains numerous complex and mysterious objects that are usually hidden at optical wavelengths by clouds of dust — but many are visible here in these infrared observations from Hubble. However, the most famous cosmic object in this image still remains invisible: the monster at our galaxy’s heart called Sagittarius A*. Astronomers have observed stars spinning around this supermassive black hole (located right in the centre of the image), and the black hole consuming clouds of dust as it affects its environment with its enormous gravitational pull. Infrared observations can pierce through thick obscuring material to reveal information that is usually hidden to the optical observer. This is the best infrared image of this region ever taken with Hubble, and uses infrared archive data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, taken in September 2011. It was posted to Flickr by Gabriel Brammer, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory based in Chile. He is also an ESO photo ambassador.
This image, not unlike a pointillist painting, shows the star-studded centre of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The crowded centre of our galaxy contains numerous complex and mysterious objects that are usually hidden at optical wavelengths by clouds of dust — but many are visible here in these infrared observations from Hubble. However, the most famous cosmic object in this image still remains invisible: the monster at our galaxy’s heart called Sagittarius A*. Astronomers have observed stars spinning around this supermassive black hole (located right in the centre of the image), and the black hole consuming clouds of dust as it affects its environment with its enormous gravitational pull. Infrared observations can pierce through thick obscuring material to reveal information that is usually hidden to the optical observer. This is the best infrared image of this region ever taken with Hubble, and uses infrared archive data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, taken in September 2011. It was posted to Flickr by Gabriel Brammer, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory based in Chile. He is also an ESO photo ambassador.

“Before NuSTAR, the X-ray background in high energies was just one blur with no resolved sources,” said Harrison. “To untangle what’s going on, you have to pinpoint and count up the individual sources of the X-rays.” 

NASA’s NuSTAR’s the first telescope capable of focusing high-energy x-rays into a sharp image, but it only gives us part of the picture. Additional research’s required to clear up the picture a little more and give us a better view of the real singers in the choir. NuSTAR should allow astronomers to decipher individual voices of x-ray singers in one of the cosmos’ rowdiest choirs. 

“We knew this cosmic choir had a strong high-pitched component, but we still don’t know if it comes from a lot of smaller, quiet singers, or a few with loud voices,” said co-author Daniel Stern, the project scientist for NuSTAR at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Now, thanks to NuSTAR, we’re gaining a better understanding of the black holes and starting to address these questions.” 

Daniel Stern NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA
Daniel Stern
NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

What’s next?

Astronomers plan on collecting more data on the high-energy x-ray choir of the COSMOS field, which should help clear up a few mysteries surrounding the birth, growth, and evolution of black holes. Hopefully, it gives also gives us more clues to many of the mysteries we discover during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

Read more about active supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies.

Learn more about the Unified Theory of Active Supermassive Black Holes.

Learn about magnetic lines of force emanating from supermassive black holes.

You can learn more about the COSMOS field here

Journey across spacetime aboard the telescopes of NASA

Discover NASA’s NuSTAR here

Learn more about the work of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Read and learn more about the Monster of the Milky Way here

 

 

Seven University Teams Selected to Design Prototypes for 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge

Proposals selected advance development of 3D printer technology and printing capabilities, develop and improve long-term plant growth and water recycling systems, and design new conceptual habitats

nasa-xhab-logo_0 

Space news (new space technology: deep space habitats; the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge) – NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division headquarters – 

x-hab2017selections
This map shows the relative location and project of each of the seven teams selected for 2017 challenge. Credits: NASA

NASA and partner the National Space Grant Foundation recently announced the selection of seven university teams to design and build the prototypes proposed as part of the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. The teams selected have the 2016 – 2017 academic year to develop their proposal into functional, working prototypes astronauts could use around the International Space Station. At the same time, they’ll gain valuable hands-on design and engineering skills and experience necessary to achieve their goals in the years ahead. During the school year, teams selected complete scheduled reviews of engineering designs and conduct three proposal status meetings with NASA officials before submitting finished prototypes in May 2017. 

“The X-Hab challenge allows NASA to access new ideas and emerging concepts while providing undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in technology development,” said Tracy Gill, who leads the X-Hab activity from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We are particularly excited to see returning teams that are successfully continuing to build on the designs and lessons learned from prior years.” 

Seven university teams were selected to design, engineer and build useful, handy prototypes astronauts could use on a daily basis to make life in space and on the International Space Station easier to manage. Each team receives a grant up to $30,000, which is managed by the National Space Grant Foundation on behalf of NASA and the American people. To support each team’s work on designing and developing useful prototypes to make life in space, and on Earth, easier to manage during the decades ahead. 

The seven university teams selected to complete the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge are: 

Being able to recycle the material you used to construct necessary tools during a long space journey or while colonizing Mars is a neat trick. Students at the University of Connecticut are working on developing a recycling plan for integrated 3-D printer technology that will be used during future space missions. It will be capable of both manufacturing and recycling polymer parts and will address the form, fit, and function of polymer parts being refitted during their entire lifespan. The ability to reuse the material used to construct items made by integrated 3-D printer technology will save space, energy, and other resources, which will reduce the number of resupply missions required during long space missions. 

Engineers and designers have only scratched the surface of possible uses of the integrated 3-D printer technology on the International Space Station. The Young geniuses at the University of Maryland are working on new technology designed and engineered to utilize 3-D printing to make strong, rigid parts for the pressurized spacesuits astronauts need to work and live in space. They plan on using mostly additive manufacturing technologies to design and engineer low-friction bearings, rotary seals and pressure seals for state-of-the-art spacesuits. This technology could help develop other applications for deep space exploration and the eventual colonization of Mars. 

Medical professionals studying the physical and medical problems associated with long term space travel and living on Mars say the build up of CO2’s a problem for astronauts. A team of student innovators and inventors at the University of Colorado are working on developing technology to reduce the levels of CO2 during space voyages of the future. They’re working on improving the processes used to remove CO2 concentrations, which can adversely affect astronaut performance and health during future space missions. Necessary technology for the success any trip to the Red Planet and the survival of future colonists planning on living on Mars. 

x-hab-2017-aether_univcolo

Preparing food grown during a long space journey or while colonizing the Red Planet’s going to be an adventure in itself. Designer, engineers, and scientists of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York are planning on perfecting their Mars Transit Habitat design. This time, they plan on using elements from their design for a kitchen and sleeping pod for a Mars transit habitat concept not requiring redesigned as their template for a kitchen and sleeping pod concept for a Mars surface habitat. Unfortunately, the astronauts heading into space and living on Mars won’t find any Star Trek Food Replicators in the Pratt Institute’s kitchen designs. Guess they’ll have to make do with instant coffee and pre-packaged, processed foods.  

The Pratt Institute's Mars Transit Habitat Concept. Credits: The Pratt Institute
Normally we spend over one third of our lives on Earth sleeping and eating. Will it be different living on a spacecraft in space? The Pratt Institute’s Mars Transit Habitat Concept is a step in the direction of eating and sleeping comfortably during our trips across the solar system and beyond.
Credits: The Pratt Institute

Making sure internal systems of all habitat systems and modules needed to ensure a successful trip to Mars are compatible and interchangeable will make the trip and life on the Red Planet easier. Design geniuses from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are working on constructing the communications, controls and environmental systems needed to integrate NASA’s Stafford Deep Space Habitat (SDSH) and Martian Reconfiguration Habitat (ReHAB). This team has also been working on systems for NASA’s Multi-purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) and the Organics and Agricultural Sustainment Inflatable System (OASIS). All the internal systems of the individual components sent to Mars will need to be completely compatible. It will make implementation, maintenance, and repair of systems easier for astronauts heading into space and colonizing Mars. 

Eating the right amount of food during a long space journey through the solar system or to Mars is a problem for astronauts. You can’t just take along all the foodstuffs you need to ensure you get the required amount of calories and vitamins. Ingenious engineers and designers from Ohio State University in Wooster are working on perfecting previous improvements they made to NASA’s Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the International Space Station. Presently, they’re working on eliminating air bubbles in the water column between the water reservoir and plants while keeping root oxygen levels sufficient for growth, which improves water capillary transport. They’re also evaluating the feasibility of recycling plant biomass to use as soil, which will reduce the need to launch it into space. Fresh vegetables to consume during a long space trip to Mars is a thumbs up to the team. 

The Ohio State University's passive water delivery system. Credits: The Ohio State University
The Ohio State University’s passive water delivery system is designed to provide water to grow vegetables to keep astronauts healthy during long periods or trips in space.
Credits: The Ohio State University

Wastewater treatment during long-term space travel or on Mars isn’t going to be the simple flush and forget it’s on Earth. A team of engineers and designers from the University of Michigan are working on a next generation system to clean and recycle the limited amount of water that will be available during any space trip. They’ll also work on designs for wastewater treatment systems usable in low gravity environments, like the surface of the Moon or the Red Planet. The water isn’t going to be the freshest in the solar system, but it will be wet, and wonderful to drink during a long journey across the solar system. 

What’s next?

The seven teams in this challenge submitted proposals early in 2016 that were selected by officials. During the 2016-2017 academic year, each team will work towards a number of milestones on the road to designing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing proposed systems and concepts. They’ll work shoulder to shoulder with scientists and engineers of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications and Advanced Exploration Systems divisions. Together they’ll advance technology in additive manufacturing, advanced life support systems, and space habitation and food production systems. Just seven groups of big kids playing with their new toys and dreaming of the things they can do with them. 

Learn about changes to a theory concerning active supermassive black holes.

Read about one of the brightest cosmic events ever recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Learn how astronomers study the formation of new stars.

Watch this YouTube video made by NASA astronauts about living and working in space.

Learn more about living in space here

Read and learn what NASA has learned about living and working in space.

Read about NASA’s plans to travel to and live on Mars

Read and discover 3-D printer technology here

Discover the work being done by the National Space Grant Foundation

Take the space journey of NASA here

Learn more about the Red Planet

Learn more about the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge here

WISE Infrared All-Sky Survey Reveals Millions of Supermassive Black Hole Candidates

Plus nearly a thousand extremely bright, dusty objects nicknamed hot DOGS 

With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes "feed" off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes “feed” off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Space news (All-sky surveys: infrared; candidate supermassive black holes and dust-obscured galaxies) – The visible universe – 

Astronomers working with data provided by an infrared survey of the visible sky conducted by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have identified millions of new candidates for the quasar section in the Galaxy Zoo. All-sky images taken by WISE revealed around 2.5 million candidate supermassive black holes actively feeding on material, some over 10 billion light-years away. They also pinpointed nearly a 1,000 very bright, extremely dusty objects nicknamed hot DOGS believed to be among the brightest galaxies discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist's concept of the WISE satellite superimposed. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist’s concept of the WISE satellite superimposed.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“These dusty, cataclysmically forming galaxies are so rare WISE had to scan the entire sky to find them,” said Peter Eisenhardt, lead author of the paper on the first of these bright, dusty galaxies, and project scientist for WISE at JPL. “We are also seeing evidence that these record setters may have formed their black holes before the bulk of their stars. The ‘eggs’ may have come before the ‘chickens.” 

Dr. Hashima Hasan is the James Webb Space Telescope Program Scientist and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for Astrophysics. Credits: NASA/JWST
Dr. Hashima Hasan is the James Webb Space Telescope Program Scientist and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for Astrophysics. Credits: NASA/JWST

“WISE has exposed a menagerie of hidden objects,” said Hashima Hasan, WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’ve found an asteroid dancing ahead of Earth in its orbit, the coldest star-like orbs known and now, supermassive black holes and galaxies hiding behind cloaks of dust.” 

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. While this figure shows the quasar's torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. While this figure shows the quasar’s torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view.
Image credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers detected Trojan asteroid TK7 in October 2010 in images of the sky taken by NASA’s WISE, before verifying its existence on optical images taken by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Additional study and computer modeling indicate Earth’s small dance partner should stay in a safe orbit for the next 10,000 years at least.  

This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes feeding off gas and dust. The larger yellow circles show WISE quasar candidates; the smaller blue-green circles show quasars found in the previous visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey. WISE finds three times as many quasar candidates with a comparable brightness. Thanks to WISE's infrared vision, it picks up previously known bright quasars as well as large numbers of hidden, dusty quasars. The circular inset images, obtained with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, show how the new WISE quasars differ from the quasars identified in visible light. Quasars selected in visible light look like stars, as shown in the lower right inset; the cross is a diffraction pattern caused by the bright point source of light. Quasars found by WISE often have more complex appearances, as seen in the Hubble inset near the center. This is because the quasars found by WISE are often obscured or hidden by dust, which blocks their visible light and allows the fainter host galaxy surrounding the black hole to be seen. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI
This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes feeding off gas and dust. The larger yellow circles show WISE quasar candidates; the smaller blue-green circles show quasars found in the previous visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey. WISE finds three times as many quasar candidates with a comparable brightness. Thanks to WISE’s infrared vision, it picks up previously known bright quasars as well as large numbers of hidden, dusty quasars.
The circular inset images, obtained with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, show how the new WISE quasars differ from the quasars identified in visible light. Quasars selected in visible light look like stars, as shown in the lower right inset; the cross is a diffraction pattern caused by the bright point source of light. Quasars found by WISE often have more complex appearances, as seen in the Hubble inset near the center. This is because the quasars found by WISE are often obscured or hidden by dust, which blocks their visible light and allows the fainter host galaxy surrounding the black hole to be seen.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI

In March 2014 astronomers studying infrared images taken by WISE announced the discovery of around 3,500 new stars lying within 500 light-years of Earth. At the same time, they searched the data looking for evidence of Planet X, or Nemesis, the mythical planet some believe to exist somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto. Scientists analyzed millions of infrared images taken by WISE out to a distance well beyond the orbit of our former ninth planet. They didn’t detect any objects the size of a planet out to a distance of around 25,000 times the distance between the Earth and Sol. Many times beyond the orbit of Pluto. No Planet X was found. 

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has identified about 1,000 extremely obscured objects over the sky, as marked by the magenta symbols. These hot dust-obscured galaxies, or "hot DOGs," are turning out to be among the most luminous, or intrinsically bright objects known, in some cases putting out over 1,000 times more energy than our Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has identified about 1,000 extremely obscured objects over the sky, as marked by the magenta symbols. These hot dust-obscured galaxies, or “hot DOGs,” are turning out to be among the most luminous, or intrinsically bright objects known, in some cases putting out over 1,000 times more energy than our Milky Way galaxy.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The vast majority of the latest candidates for the Galaxy Zoo are objects previously undetected by astronomers due to dust blocking visible light. Fortunately, the infrared eyes of WISE detected glowing dust around the candidates, which allowed scientists to detect them. These latest findings are clues astronomers use to better understand the processes creating galaxies and the monster black holes residing in their centers

This image zooms in on the region around the first "hot DOG" (red object in magenta circle), discovered by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Hot DOGs are hot dust-obscured galaxies. Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, show this source is over 10 billion light-years away. It puts out at least 37 trillion times as much energy as the sun. WISE has identified 1,000 similar candidate objects over the entire sky (magenta dots). These extremely dusty, brilliant objects are much more rare than the millions of active supermassive black holes also found by WISE (yellow circles). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This image zooms in on the region around the first “hot DOG” (red object in magenta circle), discovered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Hot DOGs are hot dust-obscured galaxies. Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, show this source is over 10 billion light-years away. It puts out at least 37 trillion times as much energy as the sun.
WISE has identified 1,000 similar candidate objects over the entire sky (magenta dots). These extremely dusty, brilliant objects are much more rare than the millions of active supermassive black holes also found by WISE (yellow circles).
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“We’ve got the black holes cornered,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the WISE black hole study and project scientist for another NASA black-hole mission, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). “WISE is finding them across the full sky, while NuSTAR is giving us an entirely new look at their high-energy X-ray light and learning what makes them tick.” 

Daniel Stern NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA
Daniel Stern
NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

Organizing the Monster Zoo

The Monster of the Milky Way, the estimated 4 million solar mass black hole astronomers believe resides at the center, periodically feeds upon material falling too deep into its gravity well, and heats up surrounding disks of dust and gas. Astronomers have even witnessed 1 billion solar mass monster black holes change their surrounding environments enough to shut down star formation processes in their host galaxy. Now, astronomers need to go through the millions of candidates and put them in the correct section of the zoo. We might even need to open a few new sections to accommodate unusual candidates found during a closer examination.  

You can learn more about supermassive black holes here

Watch this YouTube video about the Monster of the Milky Way

Tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here

Journey across the x-ray universe aboard NASA’s WISE

Learn everything NASA has learned during its journey. 

Learn more about the mission of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescopic Array (NuStar). 

Read more about Quasars

Learn more about dust-obscured galaxies (hot DOGS) here

Learn more about Trojan asteroid TK7

Learn more about the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

Learn more about How Astronomers Study the Formation of Stars.

Read more about a Wolf-Rayet star astronomers have nicknamed Nasty 1.

Read about the next-generation telescope the Giant Magellan Telescope.

How do Astronomers Study the Formation of Stars?

By using supercomputers to simulate the birth and evolution of individual stars and star clusters in the Milky Way  

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Simulation of star formation region using specially created computer code and a state-of-the-art supercomputer. Credits: NASA Ames/David Ellsworth/Tim Sandstrom

Space news (astrophysics: studying star formation; 3-D computer simulations) – NASA Advanced Supercomputing laboratory located at NASA’s Ames Research Center – 

How do astronomers study the formation of stars? Astronomers use complex computer code, run on one of the fastest, most powerful supercomputers on Earth to simulate the processes involved in the formation of individual stars and star clusters in the Milky Way. Using simulations capturing a mix of gas, dust, magnetic fields, gravity and other physical phenomena, astrophysicists study the birth and evolution of young, nearby stars and star clusters.  

The image above was created using state-of-the-art Orion2 computer code written by geniuses at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and simulated on the powerful, ultra-fast Pleiades supercomputer located at NASA Advanced Supercomputing complex. Considered the seventh most powerful supercomputer in the US, it was necessary to achieve results closely matching data obtained through observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope. 

“Our simulations, run on Pleiades and brought to life by the visualization team at the NAS facility at Ames, were critical to obtaining important new results that match with Hubble’s high-resolution images and other observations made by a variety of space and Earth-based telescopes,” said Richard Klein, adjunct professor at UC Berkeley and astrophysicist at LLNL. “A key result, supported by observation, is that some star clusters form like pearls in a chain along elongated, dense filaments inside molecular clouds—so-called “stellar nurseries.” 

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Richard Klein. Credits: The University of California, Berkeley Department of Astronomy.

The video simulation here shows the evolution of a massive cloud of gas and dust over a period of 700,000 years. Astrophysicists used the computing power of the Pleiades supercomputer, operating using the Orion2 code to create this amazing cosmic tapestry. The gravitational collapse of the cloud results in the birth of a stellar object called an infrared dark cloud (IRDC) filament. Protostars begin to form within the cloud, highlighted by bright orange regions strewn across the body of the central and bordering filaments. 

“Without NASA’s vast computational resources, it would not have been possible for us to produce these immense and complex simulations that include all the output variables we need to get these new results and compare them with observations,” Klein explained. “The ORION2 simulations incorporate a complex mix of gravity, supersonic turbulence, hydrodynamics (motion of molecular gas), radiation, magnetic fields, and highly energetic gas outflows. The science team conducted many independent tests of each piece of physics in ORION against known data to demonstrate the code’s accuracy.” 

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The Pleiades supercomputer. Credits: Ames Research Facility/NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility.

The team’s back at work trying to devise even better simulations of star formation by improving the resolution and zooming into the action. “Higher resolution in the simulations will enable us to study the details of the formation of stellar disks formed around protostars. These disks allow mass to transfer onto the protostars as they evolve, and are thought to be the structures within which planets eventually form,” said Klein.  

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Dr. Richard Klein talking about a simulation of star formation. Credits: NASA/Ames Research Facility/NASA Advanced Supercomputing

More work to do

They’ll need additional time on Pleiades and lots of extra storage during the next few years to tweak their simulations. The team seems to be on the trail of a real breakthrough in understanding and knowledge concerning the processes leading to star formation in the Milky Way. They appear to have their collective eye on the bigger picture. “Understanding star formation is a grand challenge problem. Ultimately, our results support NASA’s science goal of determining the origin of stars and planets, as part of its larger challenge of figuring out the origin of the entire universe.” 

You can learn more about the formation of stars here

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Learn about astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley here.  

Discover the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  

Read and learn about the star navigation skills of the amazing Polynesian islanders.

Read about the Kepler Space Telescope observing a shockwave from a supernova.

Read about a proto-planetary nebula with a unique shape.

NASA Selects Eight Teams of Young, Ambitious University Students

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NASA architects, engineers and scientists are already busy creating sustainable, space-based living quarters, work spaces and laboratories for next-generation human space exploration, including our journey to Mars. This 2011 version of the deep space habitat at the Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) analog field test site in Arizona features a Habitat Demonstration Unit, with the student-built X-Hab loft on top, a hygiene compartment on one side and airlock on the other.
Credits: NASA

To be the cutting edge of innovation in engineering and design of new deep space habitats 

Space news (New space technology: deep space habitats; 2016 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge) – NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division headquarters – 

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In one scenario of the Desert Research and Technology Studies in the Arizona desert, a test subject returns to a mock way station. Credit: NASA

NASA engineers, scientists, and systems designers are hard at work creating the next-generation habitats needed to travel and live in space and one day inhabit Mars. Deep within NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) test site in Arizona, they have assembled the 2011 version of the deep space habitat. A futuristic space habitat featuring a Habitat Demonstration Unit with X-Hab loft, a second story habitation designed and built by a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of the 2011 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. 

 

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The 2016 X-Hab Student Academic Challenge has selected eight university teams to design, engineer and build a next-generation space habitation. Credit: NASA/NSPF

The X-Hab Academic Challenge program’s designed and implemented to help get graduate and undergraduate level university students directly involved in the development of deep space technology capable of allowing humans to live and travel in space and eventually colonize Mars. Students are encouraged to develop and implement skills and knowledge in all areas and disciplines, team up with industry and experts and actively engage the world in a conversation concerning their work. All in an effort to improve and develop science knowledge, technical ability, leadership qualities and project skills of students selected and encourage further studies in space industry disciplines. 

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Cutaway of inflatable airlock highlighting doors, support structures and suitports.
Credits: University of Maryland
The 2016 X-Hab Academic Challenge is the sixth event and this year NASA scientists and engineers are working with graduate and undergraduate students from eight American universities on new technology projects to enable astronauts to travel into deep space and the Red Planet. Earlier in the year, student teams submitted proposals, which were selected after extensive analysis by NASA. During the 2015-2016 academic year, each team will design, engineer, build and test all project systems and concepts hand in hand with scientists and engineers from NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. NASA staff will work with student teams selected on next-generation life support systems, space habitats and deep space food production systems needed for the success of future manned missions to Mars. 

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Organics and Agricultural Sustainment Inflatable System (OASIS) Habitat Interior
Credits: Oklahoma State University

“These strategic collaborations lower the barrier for university students to assist NASA in bridging gaps and increasing our knowledge in architectural design trades, capabilities, and technology risk reduction related to exploration activities that will eventually take humans farther into space than ever before,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division. 

 

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Official portrait of Jason Crusan at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Credit: NASA

The teams and projects selected as part of NASA’s X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge are listed below. 

AES’s In-space Manufacturing division sponsorships are: 

The University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez is working on the development of new low-power technology required for the manufacture of metals in zero-gravity environments 

AES’s Beyond Earth Habitation division sponsorships are: 

The University of Maryland, College Park is working on next-generation airlocks that are inflatable 

Students from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York are working on habitat designs to keep astronauts safe and warm during their trip to the Red Planet

Oklahoma State University, Stillwater students are doing studies on deep space habitats suitable for a trip to the Red Planet 

AES’s Life Support Systems division sponsorships are: 

Students from the University of South Alabama, Mobile are working on a new concentration swing frequency response device 

AES’s Space Life and Physical Sciences division sponsorships are:  

Students from Utan State University, Logan are designing new experimental plant systems for microgravity environments 

The team from Ohio State University, Columbus is working on improving water delivery in modular vegetable production systems needed to provide astronauts with food during their journey and life on Mars 

The team from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder is working on improving the performance of the Mars OASIS Space Plant Growth System 

The X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge is led by NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation in an effort to enable the human journey to the beginning of space and time. The program supports space science research efforts to develop sustainable and cost-effective robotic and human space technology to make our journey possible. It also helps train and develop highly skilled scientists, engineers, and technicians needed to design and implement technology developed to travel and live in space. 

Partners in space exploration

NASA lends its scientists, engineers and space exploration technology, and experience to the X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. The National Space Grant Foundation administers the grants provided by NASA, which range from $10,000 to $30,000, to fund the building, development and final evaluation of each project selected and completed during the 2015-2016 academic year. 

Find more information on previous X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenges here

Join the conversation and space journey of NASA

Find out more about the work of the National Space Grant Foundation here

Read about a runaway star NASA astronomers have been following across the Tarantula Nebula.

Learn more about the colonization of the Pacific Ocean by Polynesian islanders and their star navigation skills tens of thousands of years ago.

Read about the Kepler Space Telescope recently capturing a supernova shockwave in visible light for the first time.

 

 

A Cosmic Explosion Brighter than the Core of the Milky Way

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/

Hypernova SN 2006gy was over a hundred times brighter than a typical supernova  

Space news (astrophysics: hypernovae; one of the brightest ever, SN 2006gy) – 240 million light-years toward the constellation Perseus in galaxy NGC 1260 –  

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Watch this animation of SN 2006gy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

It all started in September of 2006 when a fourth-year University of Texas graduate student astronomer working for the Palomar Transient Factory’s (PTF) luminous supernova program Robert Quimby discovered the brightest celestial event up to this date. An exploding star over 100 times brighter than a normal supernova and shining brighter than the core of its host galaxy NGC 1260. 

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/Keck.

“This was a truly monstrous explosion, a hundred times more energetic than a typical supernova,” said Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley, who led a team of astronomers from California and the University of Texas at Austin. “That means the star that exploded might have been as massive as a star can get, about 150 times that of our sun. We’ve never seen that before.”  

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Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley. Credit: University of California at Berkeley/NASA

Teams of astronomers working with the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in California and M.W. Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii immediately began observing the event designated supernova SN 2006gy. Analysis of data showed it occurred over 240 million light-years away in galaxy NGC 1260 and took 70 days to reach maximum brightness. Staying brighter than any previously recorded event for over three months, SN 2006gy was still as bright as a normal supernova eight months later. 

SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist's illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy.
SN 2006gy is the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded and may be a long-sought new type of supernova, according to observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (bottom right panel) and ground-based optical telescopes (bottom left). This discovery indicates that violent explosions of extremely massive stars, depicted in the artist’s illustration (top panel), were relatively common in the early universe. These data also suggest that a similar explosion may be ready to go off in our own Galaxy. Credits: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Lick/Keck.

“Of all exploding stars ever observed, this was the king,” said Alex Filippenko, leader of the ground-based observations at the Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, Calif., and the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. “We were astonished to see how bright it got, and how long it lasted.”  

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Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy for University of California, Berkeley. Credits: University of California, Berkeley.

Astronomers were reasonably sure at this point the progenitor of supernova SN 2006gy was one of the largest, most massive types of stars ever to exist. But they needed to rule out the most likely alternative explanation for the event. The possibility a white dwarf star with a mass slightly higher than Sol went supernova in a dense, hydrogen-rich environment.  

Another team of astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory went to work at this point to rule this possibility out of their equations. If this was the case, they knew X-ray emission from the event should be at least 1,000 times more luminous than the readings they were getting.     

“This provides strong evidence that SN 2006gy was, in fact, the death of an extremely massive star,” said Dave Pooley of the University of California at Berkeley, who led the Chandra observations. 

The progenitor star for SN 2006gy is thought to have ejected a large volume of mass before the hypernova event occurred. This is similar to events observed by astronomers in the case of Eta Carinae, a nearby supermassive star they’re watching closely for signs of an impending supernova. Only 7,500 light-years toward the constellation Carina, compared to 240 million for galaxy NGC 1260, this star going supernova would be the celestial event of the century on Earth. It would be bright enough to see in the daylight sky.

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Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular lecturer. Credits: MarioLivio.com

“We don’t know for sure if Eta Carinae will explode soon, but we had better keep a close eye on it just in case,” said Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who was not involved in the research. “Eta Carinae’s explosion could be the best star-show in the history of modern civilization.” 

The massive star Eta Carinae (almost hidden in the center) underwent a giant explosion some 150 years ago. The outburst spread the material that is visible today in this very sharp Hubble image. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 15 thousand million kilometre across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks al appear with unprecedented clarity. A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae. Credit: Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA/ESA
The massive star Eta Carinae (almost hidden in the center) underwent a giant explosion some 150 years ago. The outburst spread the material that is visible today in this very sharp Hubble image. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 15 thousand million kilometre across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks al appear with unprecedented clarity.
A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae.
Credit:
Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA/ESA

So many questions

Astronomers think in the case of hypernova SN 2006gy things might have taken a slightly different pathway than previously recorded supernovae. Some scientists think the massive star that exploded could be much more like the supermassive stars that existed during the early moments of the cosmos. Supermassive stars that exploded in supernovae and spread the elements of creation across the cosmos, rather than collapsing to a black hole as theorized.  

“In terms of the effect on the early universe, there’s a huge difference between these two possibilities,” said Smith. “One [sprinkles] the galaxy with large quantities of newly made elements and the other locks them up forever in a black hole.” 

Why would these supermassive stars be different than other huge stars observed in the Milky Way? The human search for answers to these and other mysterious questions before us continues as we journey backward to the beginning of space and time. 

We’ll update you with any additional data astronomers come across as the journey continues. Until next time, keep dreaming of the possibilities. 

Warren Wong 

Editor and Chief 

The Human Journey to the beginning of space and time. 

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Discover the things X-ray emissions are telling us aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory

Read more about a star astronomers nicknamed Nasty 1.

Learn more about Kepler’s recent observation of the shockwave of a supernova in visible light.

Read about the next generation Eye-in-the-sky the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).