Category: galaxy

Gobble Up These Black (Hole) Friday Deals!

Welcome to our 6th annual

annual Black Hole Friday! Check out these black hole deals from the past year as you prepare to
head out for a shopping spree or hunker down at home to avoid the crowds.

First things first, black holes have one basic rule:
They are so incredibly dense that to escape their surface you’d have to travel
faster than light. But light speed is the cosmic speed limit … so nothing
can escape a black hole’s surface!

hole birth announcements

Some black holes form when a very large star
dies in a supernova explosion and collapses
into a superdense object. This is even more jam-packed than the crowds at your
local mall — imagine an object 10 times more massive than the Sun squeezed into
a sphere with the diameter of New York City!


Some of these collapsing stars also signal
their destruction with a huge burst of gamma rays. Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and
Gehrels Swift Observatory
continuously seek out the
signals of these gamma ray bursts — black hole birth announcements that
come to us from across the universe.

black holes

There are loads of stellar mass black holes,
which are just a few 10s of times the Sun’s mass, in our home galaxy alone —
maybe even hundreds of millions of them! Our Neutron Star
Interior Composition Explorer
, or NICER for short,
experiment on the International Space Station has been studying some of those relatively nearby black holes.


Near one black hole called GRS 1915+105, NICER found disk
winds — fast streams of gas created by heat or pressure. Scientists are still figuring out some puzzles about these types of wind.
Where do they come from, for example? And do they change the way material falls
into the black hole? Every new example of these disk winds helps astronomers
get closer to answering those questions.

monster black holes

But stellar mass black holes aren’t the only
ones out there. At the center of nearly every large galaxy lies a supermassive
black hole — one with the mass of millions or billions of Suns smooshed into a region no bigger than our solar


There’s still some debate about how these
monsters form, but astronomers agree that they certainly can collide and
combine when their host galaxies collide and combine. Those black holes will
have a lot of gas and dust around them. As that material is pulled into the
black hole it will heat up due to

friction and other forces, causing it to emit light.  A group of scientists wondered what light it
would produce and created this mesmerizing visualization showing that most of the light
produced around these two black holes is UV or X-ray light
We can’t see those wavelengths with our own eyes, but many telescopes can.
Models like this could help scientists know what to look for to spot a merger.

holes power bright gamma ray lights

It also turns out that these supermassive
black holes are the source of some of the brightest objects in the gamma ray
sky! In a type of galaxy called active galactic nuclei (also called “AGN” for short)
the central black hole is surrounded by a disk of gas and dust that’s
constantly falling into the black hole.


But not only that, some of those AGN have jets
of energetic particles that are shooting out from near the black hole at nearly
the speed of light! Scientists are studying these jets to try to understand how
black holes — which pull everything in with their huge amounts of gravity —
provide the energy needed to propel the particles in these jets. If that jet is
pointed directly at us, it can appear super-bright in gamma rays and we call it
a blazar. These blazars make up more than half of the sources our Fermi
space telescope sees

particles from near a black hole

Sometimes scientists get a two-for-one kind of
deal when they’re looking for black holes. Our colleagues at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory
actually caught a particle from a blazar 4 billion light-years
. IceCube lies a mile under the ice in Antarctica and
uses the ice itself to detect neutrinos, tiny speedy particles that weigh
almost nothing and rarely interact with anything. When IceCube caught a
super-high-energy neutrino and traced its origin to a specific area of the sky,
they turned to the astronomical community to pinpoint the source.


Our Fermi spacecraft scans the entire sky
about every three hours and for months it had observed a blazar producing more
gamma rays than usual. Flaring is a
common characteristic in blazars
, so this didn’t attract
special attention. But when the alert from IceCube came through, scientists
realized the neutrino and the gamma rays came from the same patch of sky! This
method of using two or more kinds of signals to learn about one event or object
is called multimessenger astronomy, and it’s helping us learn a lot about the


Get more fun facts and information about black
holes HERE
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social media
today for other cool facts and findings
about black holes!

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A lovely view of our little home in the cosmos…

A lovely view of our little home in the cosmos.

Things That Go Bump in the Gamma Rays

Some people watch scary movies because they like being startled. A bad guy jumps out from around a corner! A monster emerges from the shadows! Scientists experience surprises all the time, but they’re usually more excited than scared. Sometimes theories foreshadow new findings — like when there’s a dramatic swell in the movie soundtrack — but often, discoveries are truly unexpected. 


Scientists working with the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope have been jumping to study mysterious bumps in the gamma rays for a decade now. Gamma rays are the highest-energy form of light. Invisible to human eyes, they’re created by some of the most powerful and unusual events and objects in the universe. In celebration of Halloween, here are a few spooky gamma-ray findings from Fermi’s catalog.


Stellar Graveyards

If you were to walk through a cemetery at night, you’d expect to trip over headstones or grave markers. Maybe you’d worry about running into a ghost. If you could explore the stellar gravesite created when a star explodes as a supernova, you’d find a cloud of debris expanding into interstellar space. Some of the chemical elements in that debris, like gold and platinum, go on to create new stars and planets! Fermi found that supernova remnants IC 443 and W44 also accelerate mysterious cosmic rays, high-energy particles moving at nearly the speed of light. As the shockwave of the supernova expands, particles escape its magnetic field and interact with non-cosmic-ray particles to produce gamma rays. 


Ghost Particles

But the sources of cosmic rays aren’t the only particle mysteries Fermi studies. Just this July, Fermi teamed up with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica to discover the first source of neutrinos outside our galactic neighborhood. Neutrinos are particles that weigh almost nothing and rarely interact with anything. Around a trillion of them pass through you every second, ghost-like, without you noticing and then continue on their way. (But don’t worry, like a friendly ghost, they don’t harm you!) Fermi traced the neutrino IceCube detected back to a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy. By the time it reached Earth, it had traveled for 3.7 billion years at almost the speed of light!


Black Widow Pulsars

Black widows and redbacks are species of spiders with a reputation for devouring their partners. Astronomers have discovered two types of star systems that behave in a similar way. Sometimes when a star explodes as a supernova, it collapses back into a rapidly spinning, incredibly dense star called a pulsar. If there’s a lighter star nearby, it can get stuck in a close orbit with the pulsar, which blasts it with gamma rays, magnetic fields and intense winds of energetic particles. All these combine to blow clouds of material off the low-mass star. Eventually, the pulsar can eat away at its companion entirely.


Dark Matter

What’s spookier than a good unsolved mystery? Dark matter is a little-understood substance that makes up most of the matter in the universe. The stuff that we can see — stars, people, haunted houses, candy — is made up of normal matter. But our surveys of the cosmos tell us there’s not enough normal matter to keep things working the way they do. There must be another type of matter out there holding everything together. One of Fermi’s jobs is to help scientists narrow down the search for dark matter. Last year, researchers noticed that most of the gamma rays coming from the Andromeda galaxy are confined to its center instead of being spread throughout. One possible explanation is that accumulated dark matter at the center of the galaxy is emitting gamma rays!


Fermi has helped us learn a lot about the gamma-ray universe over the last 10 years. Learn more about its accomplishments and the other mysteries it’s working to solve. What other surprises are waiting out among the stars?

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The Kepler space telescope has shown us our ga…


The Kepler space telescope

has taught us there are so many planets out there, they outnumber even
the stars. Here is a sample of these wondrous, weird and unexpected worlds (and
other spectacular objects in space) that Kepler has spotted with its “eye” opened to the heavens.

Kepler has found that double sunsets
really do exist.


Yes, Star Wars fans, the double sunset on Tatooine could really exist.
Kepler discovered the first known planet around a double-star system, though

Kepler-16b is probably a gas giant without a solid surface.

Kepler has gotten us closer to finding
planets like Earth.


Nope. Kepler hasn’t found Earth 2.0, and that wasn’t the job it set out
to do. But in its survey of hundreds of thousands of stars, Kepler found planets
near in size to Earth orbiting at a distance where liquid water could pool on
the surface. One of them, Kepler-62f, is about 40 percent bigger than Earth and
is likely rocky. Is there life on any of them? We still have a lot more to

This sizzling world is so hot iron would


One of Kepler’s early discoveries was the small, scorched world of


With a year that lasts less than an Earth day and density high enough to
imply it’s probably made of iron and rock, this “lava world” gave us the first
solid evidence of a rocky planet outside our solar system. 

If it’s not an alien megastructure, what
is this oddly fluctuating star?


When Kepler detected the oddly fluctuating light from


the internet lit up with speculation of an alien
megastructure. Astronomers have concluded it’s probably an orbiting dust

Kepler caught this dead
star cannibalizing its planet.


What happens when a solar system dies? Kepler discovered a white dwarf,
the compact corpse of a star in the process of

vaporizing a

These Kepler planets are more than twice the age of our Sun!


The five small planets in Kepler-444

were born 11 billion years ago when our galaxy was in its youth. Imagine
what these ancient planets look like after all that time?

Kepler found a supernova exploding at
breakneck speed.


This premier planet hunter has also been watching stars explode. Kepler
recorded a sped-up version of a supernova called a

luminescent transit
” that reached its peak brightness at breakneck
speed. It was caused by a star spewing out a dense shell of gas that lit up
when hit with the shockwave from the blast. 

* All images are artist illustrations.

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A Mesmerizing Model of Monster Black Holes

Just about every galaxy the size of our Milky Way (or bigger) has a supermassive black hole at its center. These objects are ginormous — hundreds of thousands to billions of times the mass of the Sun! Now, we know galaxies merge from time to time, so it follows that some of their black holes should combine too. But we haven’t seen a collision like that yet, and we don’t know exactly what it would look like. 


A new simulation created on the Blue Waters supercomputer — which can do 13 quadrillion calculations per second, 3 million times faster than the average laptop — is helping scientists understand what kind of light would be produced by the gas around these systems as they spiral toward a merger.

The new simulation shows most of the light produced around these two black holes is UV or X-ray light. We can’t see those wavelengths with our own eyes, but many telescopes can. Models like this could tell the scientists what to look for. 

You may have spotted the blank circular region between the two black holes. No, that’s not a third black hole. It’s a spot that wasn’t modeled in this version of the simulation. Future models will include the glowing gas passing between the black holes in that region, but the researchers need more processing power. The current version already required 46 days!


The supermassive black holes have some pretty nifty effects on the light created by the gas in the system. If you view the simulation from the side, you can see that their gravity bends light like a lens. When the black holes are lined up, you even get a double lens!

But what would the view be like from between two black holes? In the 360-degree video above, the system’s gas has been removed and the Gaia star catalog has been added to the background. If you watch the video in the YouTube app on your phone, you can moved the screen around to explore this extreme vista. Learn more about the new simulation here

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Black Holes are NICER Than You Think!

We’re learning more every day about black holes thanks to one of the instruments aboard the International Space Station! Our Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument is keeping an eye on some of the most mysterious cosmic phenomena.


We’re going to talk about some of the amazing new things NICER is showing us about black holes. But first, let’s talk about black holes — how do they work, and where do they come from? There are two important types of black holes we’ll talk about here: stellar and supermassive. Stellar mass black holes are three to dozens of times as massive as our Sun while supermassive black holes can be billions of times as massive!


Stellar black holes begin with a bang — literally! They are one of the possible objects left over after a large star dies in a supernova explosion. Scientists think there are as many as a billion stellar mass black holes in our Milky Way galaxy alone!

Supermassive black holes have remained rather mysterious in comparison. Data suggest that supermassive black holes could be created when multiple black holes merge and make a bigger one. Or that these black holes formed during the early stages of galaxy formation, born when massive clouds of gas collapsed billions of years ago. There is very strong evidence that a supermassive black hole lies at the center of all large galaxies, as in our Milky Way.


Imagine an object 10 times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City — or cramming a billion trillion people into a car! These two examples give a sense of how incredibly compact and dense black holes can be.

Because so much stuff is squished into such a relatively small volume, a black hole’s gravity is strong enough that nothing — not even light — can escape from it. But if light can’t escape a dark fate when it encounters a black hole, how can we “see” black holes?


Scientists can’t observe black holes directly, because light can’t escape to bring us information about what’s going on inside them. Instead, they detect the presence of black holes indirectly — by looking for their effects on the cosmic objects around them. We see stars orbiting something massive but invisible to our telescopes, or even disappearing entirely!

When a star approaches a black hole’s event horizon — the point of no return — it’s torn apart. A technical term for this is “spaghettification” — we’re not kidding! Cosmic objects that go through the process of spaghettification become vertically stretched and horizontally compressed into thin, long shapes like noodles.


Scientists can also look for accretion disks when searching for black holes. These disks are relatively flat sheets of gas and dust that surround a cosmic object such as a star or black hole. The material in the disk swirls around and around, until it falls into the black hole. And because of the friction created by the constant movement, the material becomes super hot and emits light, including X-rays.  

At last — light! Different wavelengths of light coming from accretion disks are something we can see with our instruments. This reveals important information about black holes, even though we can’t see them directly.


So what has NICER helped us learn about black holes? One of the objects this instrument has studied during its time aboard the International Space Station is the ever-so-forgettably-named black hole GRS 1915+105, which lies nearly 36,000 light-years — or 200 million billion miles — away, in the direction of the constellation Aquila.

Scientists have found disk winds — fast streams of gas created by heat or pressure — near this black hole. Disk winds are pretty peculiar, and we still have a lot of questions about them. Where do they come from? And do they change the shape of the accretion disk?


It’s been difficult to answer these questions, but NICER is more sensitive than previous missions designed to return similar science data. Plus NICER often looks at GRS 1915+105 so it can see changes over time.

NICER’s observations of GRS 1915+105 have provided astronomers a prime example of disk wind patterns, allowing scientists to construct models that can help us better understand how accretion disks and their outflows around black holes work.


NICER has also collected data on a stellar mass black hole with another long name — MAXI J1535-571 (we can call it J1535 for short) — adding to information provided by NuSTAR, Chandra, and MAXI. Even though these are all X-ray detectors, their observations tell us something slightly different about J1535, complementing each other’s data!

This rapidly spinning black hole is part of a binary system, slurping material off its partner, a star. A thin halo of hot gas above the disk illuminates the accretion disk and causes it to glow in X-ray light, which reveals still more information about the shape, temperature, and even the chemical content of the disk. And it turns out that J1535’s disk may be warped!


Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI and Artist: John Kagaya (Hoshi No Techou)

This isn’t the first time we have seen evidence for a warped disk, but J1535’s disk can help us learn more about stellar black holes in binary systems, such as how they feed off their companions and how the accretion disks around black holes are structured.

NICER primarily studies neutron stars — it’s in the name! These are lighter-weight relatives of black holes that can be formed when stars explode. But NICER is also changing what we know about many types of X-ray sources. Thanks to NICER’s efforts, we are one step closer to a complete picture of black holes. And hey, that’s pretty nice!

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Solar System 10 Things: Dust in the Wind, on M…

To most of us, dust is an annoyance. Something to be cleaned up, washed off or wiped away. But these tiny particles that float about and settle on surfaces play an important role in a variety of processes on Earth and across the solar system. So put away that feather duster for a few moments, as we share with you 10 things to know about dust.


1. “Dust” Doesn’t Mean Dirty, it Means Tiny

Not all of what we call “dust” is made of the same stuff. Dust in your home generally consists of things like particles of sand and soil, pollen, dander (dead skin cells), pet hair, furniture fibers and cosmetics. But in space, dust can refer to any sort of fine particles smaller than a grain of sand. Dust is most commonly bits of rock or carbon-rich, soot-like grains, but in the outer solar system, far from the Sun’s warmth, it’s also common to find tiny grains of ice as well. Galaxies, including our Milky Way, contain giant clouds of fine dust that are light years across – the ingredients for future generations of planetary systems like ours.


2. Some Are Big, Some Are Small (and Big Ones Tend to Fall)

Dust grains come in a range of sizes, which affects their properties. Particles can be extremely tiny, from only a few tens of nanometers (mere billionths of a meter) wide, to nearly a millimeter wide. As you might expect, smaller dust grains are more easily lifted and pushed around, be it by winds or magnetic, electrical and gravitational forces. Even the gentle pressure of sunlight is enough to move smaller dust particles in space. Bigger particles tend to be heavier, and they settle out more easily under the influence of gravity.

For example, on Earth, powerful winds can whip up large amounts of dust into the atmosphere. While the smaller grains can be transported over great distances, the heavier particles generally sink back to the ground near their source. On Saturn’s moon Enceladus, jets of icy dust particles spray hundreds of miles up from the surface; the bigger particles are lofted only a few tens of miles (or kilometers) and fall back to the ground, while the finest particles escape the moon’s gravity and go into orbit around Saturn to create the planet’s E ring.



Generally speaking, the space between the planets is pretty empty, but not completely so. Particles cast off by comets and ground up bits of asteroids are found throughout the solar system. Take any volume of space half a mile (1 kilometer) on a side, and you’d average a few micron-sized particles (grains the thickness of a red blood cell).

Dust in the solar system was a lot more abundant in the past. There was a huge amount of it present as the planets began to coalesce out of the disk of material that formed the Sun. In fact, motes of dust gently sticking together were likely some of the earliest seeds of the planet-building process. But where did all that dust come from, originally? Some of it comes from stars like our Sun, which blow off their outer layers in their later years. But lots of it also comes from exploding stars, which blast huge amounts of dust and gas into space when they go boom.


4. From a Certain Point of View

Dust is easier to see from certain viewing angles. Tiny particles scatter light depending on how big their grains are. Larger particles tend to scatter light back in the direction from which it came, while very tiny particles tend to scatter light forward, more or less in the direction it was already going. Because of this property, structures like planetary rings made of the finest dusty particles are best viewed with the Sun illuminating them from behind. For example, Jupiter’s rings were only discovered after the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed by the planet, where it could look back and see them backlit by the Sun. You can see the same effect looking through a dusty windshield at sunset; when you face toward the Sun, the dust becomes much more apparent.


5. Dust Storms Are Common on Mars

Local dust storms occur frequently on Mars, and occasionally grow or merge to form regional systems, particularly during the southern spring and summer, when Mars is closest to the Sun. On rare occasions, regional storms produce a dust haze that encircles the planet and obscures surface features beneath. A few of these events may become truly global storms, such as one in 1971 that greeted the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, our Mariner 9. In mid-2018, a global dust storm enshrouded Mars, hiding much of the Red Planet’s surface from view and threatening the continued operation of our uber long-lived Opportunity rover. We’ve also seen global dust storms in 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007.

Dust storms will likely present challenges for future astronauts on the Red Planet. Although the force of the wind on Mars is not as strong as portrayed in an early scene in the movie “The Martian,” dust lofted during storms could affect electronics and health, as well as the availability of solar energy.

6. Dust From the Sahara Goes Global

Earth’s largest, hottest desert is connected to its largest tropical rain forest by dust. The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a dusty cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle.

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust. Specifically, the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad – an ancient lake bed where minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the nutrient-poor Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.


7. Rings and Things

The rings of the giant planets contain a variety of different dusty materials. Jupiter’s rings are made of fine rock dust. Saturn’s rings are mostly pure water ice, with a sprinkling of other materials. (Side note about Saturn’s rings: While most of the particles are boulder-sized, there’s also lots of fine dust, and some of the fainter rings are mostly dust with few or no large particles.) Dust in the rings of Uranus and Neptune is made of dark, sooty material, probably rich in carbon.

Over time, dust gets removed from ring systems due to a variety of processes. For example, some of the dust falls into the planet’s atmosphere, while some gets swept up by the planets’ magnetic fields, and other dust settles onto the surfaces of the moons and other ring particles. Larger particles eventually form new moons or get ground down and mixed with incoming material. This means rings can change a lot over time, so understanding how the tiniest ring particles are being moved about has bearing on the history, origins and future of the rings.


8. Moon Dust is Clingy and Might Make You Sick

So, dust is kind of a thing on the Moon. When the Apollo astronauts visited the Moon, they found that lunar dust quickly coated their spacesuits and was difficult to remove. It was quite abrasive, causing wear on their spacesuit fabrics, seals and faceplates. It also clogged mechanisms like the joints in spacesuit limbs, and interfered with fasteners like zippers and Velcro. The astronauts also noted that it had a distinctive, pungent odor, not unlike gunpowder, and it was an eye and lung irritant.

Many of these properties apparently can be explained by the fact that lunar dust particles are quite rough and jagged. While dust particles on Earth get tumbled and ground by the wind into smoother shapes, this sort of weathering doesn’t happen so much on the Moon. The roughness of Moon dust grains makes it very easy for them to cling to surfaces and scratch them up. It also means they’re not the sort of thing you would want to inhale, as their jagged edges could damage delicate tissues in the lung.


9. Dust is What Makes Comets So Pretty

Most comets are basically clods of dust, rock and ice. They spend most of their time far from the Sun, out in the refrigerated depths of the outer solar system, where they’re peacefully dormant. But when their orbits carry them closer to the Sun – that is, roughly inside the orbit of Jupiter – comets wake up. In response to warming temperatures, the ices on and near their surfaces begin to turn into gases, expanding outward and away from the comet, and creating focused jets of material in places. Dust gets carried away by this rapidly expanding gas, creating a fuzzy cloud around the comet’s nucleus called a coma. Some of the dust also is drawn out into a long trail – the comet’s tail.


10. We’re Not the Only Ones Who’re So Dusty

Dust in our solar system is continually replenished by comets whizzing past the Sun and the occasional asteroid collision, and it’s always being moved about, thanks to a variety of factors like the gravity of the planets and even the pressure of sunlight. Some of it even gets ejected from our solar system altogether.

With telescopes, we also observe dusty debris disks around many other stars. As in our own system, the dust in such disks should evolve over time, settling on planetary surfaces or being ejected, and this means the dust must be replenished in those star systems as well. So studying the dust in our planetary environs can tell us about other systems, and vice versa. Grains of dust from other planetary systems also pass through our neighborhood – a few spacecraft have actually captured and analyzed some them – offering us a tangible way to study material from other stars.

Read the full version of ‘Solar System: 10 Things to Know’ article HERE

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8 Common Questions About Our James Webb Space …

You might have heard the basics about our James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, and still have lots more questions!  Here are more advanced questions we are frequently asked.  (If you want to know the basics, read this Tumblr first!)

Webb is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born and how life could form on other planets.

1. Why is the mirror segmented? 

The James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) diameter mirror, made from 18 individual segments. Webb needs to have an unfolding mirror because the mirror is so large that it otherwise cannot fit in the launch shroud of currently available rockets.


The mirror has to be large in order to see the faint light from the first star-forming regions and to see very small details at infrared wavelengths. 


Designing, building and operating a mirror that unfolds is one of the major technological developments of Webb. Unfolding mirrors will be necessary for future missions requiring even larger mirrors, and will find application in other scientific, civil and military space missions.

2. Why are the mirrors hexagonal?

In short, the hexagonal shape allows a segmented mirror to be constructed with very small gaps, so the segments combine to form a roughly circular shape and need only three variations in size. If we had circular segments, there would be gaps between them.


Finally, we want a roughly circular overall mirror shape because that focuses the light into the most symmetric and compact region on the detectors. 


An oval mirror, for example, would give images that are elongated in one direction. A square mirror would send a lot of the light out of the central region.

3. Is there a danger from micrometeoroids?

A micrometeoroid is a particle smaller than a grain of sand. Most never reach Earth’s surface because they are vaporized by the intense heat generated by the friction of passing through the atmosphere. In space, no blanket of atmosphere protects a spacecraft or a spacewalker.

Webb will be a million miles away from the Earth orbiting what we call the second Lagrange point (L2). Unlike in low Earth orbit, there is not much space debris out there that could damage the exposed mirror. 


But we do expect Webb to get impacted by these very tiny micrometeoroids for the duration of the mission, and Webb is designed to accommodate for them.


All of Webb’s systems are designed to survive micrometeoroid impacts.

4. Why does the sunshield have five layers?

Webb has a giant, tennis-court sized sunshield, made of five, very thin layers of an insulating film called Kapton.  

Why five? One big, thick sunshield would conduct the heat from the bottom to the top more than would a shield with five layers separated by vacuum. With five layers to the sunshield, each successive one is cooler than the one below. 


The heat radiates out from between the layers, and the vacuum between the layers is a very good insulator. From studies done early in the mission development five layers were found to provide sufficient cooling. More layers would provide additional cooling, but would also mean more mass and complexity. We settled on five because it gives us enough cooling with some “margin” or a safety factor, and six or more wouldn’t return any additional benefits.

Fun fact: You could nearly boil water on the hot side of the sunshield, and it is frigid enough on the cold side to freeze nitrogen!

5. What kind of telescope is Webb?


Webb is a reflecting telescope that uses three curved mirrors. Technically, it’s called a three-mirror anastigmat.

6. What happens after launch? How long until there will be data?

We’ll give a short overview here, but check out our full FAQ for a more in-depth look.

In the first hour: About 30 minutes after liftoff, Webb will separate from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Shortly after this, we will talk with Webb from the ground to make sure everything is okay after its trip to space.


In the first day: About 10.5 hours after launch, Webb will pass the Moon’s orbit, nearly a quarter of the way to Lagrange Point 2 (L2).


In the first week: We begin the major deployment of Webb. This includes unfolding the sunshield and tensioning the individual membranes, deploying the secondary mirror, and deploying the primary mirror.


In the first month: As the telescope cools in the shade of the sunshield, we turn on the warm electronics and initialize the flight software. As the telescope cools to near its operating temperature, parts of it are warmed with electronic heaters. This prevents condensation as residual water trapped within some of the materials making up the observatory escapes into space.


In the second month: We will turn on and operate Webb’s Fine Guidance Sensor, NIRCam, and NIRSpec instruments. 


The first NIRCam image, which will be an out-of-focus image of a crowded star field, will be used to identify each mirror segment with its image of a star in the camera. We will also focus the secondary mirror.


In the third month: We will align the primary mirror segments so that they can work together as a single optical surface. We will also turn on and operate Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), a camera and spectrograph that views a wide spectrum of infrared light. By the end of the third month, we will be able to take the first science-quality images. Also by this time, Webb will complete its journey to its L2 orbit position.


In the fourth through the sixth month: We will complete the optimization of the telescope. We will test and calibrate all of the science instruments.

After six months: Webb will begin its science mission and start to conduct routine science operations.


7. Why not assemble it in orbit?

Various scenarios were studied, and assembling in orbit was determined to be unfeasible.

We examined the possibility of in-orbit assembly for Webb. The International Space Station does not have the capability to assemble precision optical structures. Additionally, space debris that resides around the space station could have damaged or contaminated Webb’s optics. Webb’s deployment happens far above low Earth orbit and the debris that is found there.


Finally, if the space station were used as a stopping point for the observatory, we would have needed a second rocket to launch it to its final destination at L2. The observatory would have to be designed with much more mass to withstand this “second launch,” leaving less mass for the mirrors and science instruments.

8. Who is James Webb?

This telescope is named after James E. Webb (1906–1992), our second administrator. Webb is best known for leading Apollo, a series of lunar exploration programs that landed the first humans on the Moon. 


However, he also initiated a vigorous space science program that was responsible for more than 75 launches during his tenure, including America’s first interplanetary explorers.

Looking for some more in-depth FAQs? You can find them HERE.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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10 Frequently Asked Questions About the James …

Got basic questions about the James Webb Space Telescope and what amazing things we’ll learn from it? We’ve got your answers right here! 

The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born, and how life could form on other planets.


1. What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

Our James Webb Space Telescope is a giant space telescope that observes infrared light. Rather than a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s a scientific successor that will complement and extend its discoveries.


Being able to see longer wavelengths of light than Hubble and having greatly improved sensitivity will let Webb look further back in time to see the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, and to peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.


2. What are the most exciting things we will learn?

We have yet to observe the era of our universe’s history when galaxies began to form

We have a lot to learn about how galaxies got supermassive black holes in their centers, and we don’t really know whether the black holes caused the galaxies to form or vice versa.


We can’t see inside dust clouds with high resolution, where stars and planets are being born nearby, but Webb will be able to do just that. 

We don’t know how many planetary systems might be hospitable to life, but Webb could tell whether some Earth-like planets have enough water to have oceans.


We don’t know much about dark matter or dark energy, but we expect to learn more about where the dark matter is now, and we hope to learn the history of the acceleration of the universe that we attribute to dark energy. 

And then, there are the surprises we can’t imagine!

3. Why is Webb an infrared telescope?

By viewing the universe at infrared wavelengths with such sensitivity, Webb will show us things never before seen by any other telescope. For example, it is only at infrared wavelengths that we can see the first stars and galaxies forming after the Big Bang. 


And it is with infrared light that we can see stars and planetary systems forming inside clouds of dust that are opaque to visible light, such as in the above visible and infrared light comparison image of the Carina Nebula.

4. Will Webb take amazing pictures like Hubble? Can Webb see visible light?

YES, Webb will take amazing pictures! We are going to be looking at things we’ve never seen before and looking at things we have seen before in completely new ways.

The beauty and quality of an astronomical image depends on two things: the sharpness and the number of pixels in the camera. On both of these counts, Webb is very similar to, and in many ways better than, Hubble. 


Additionally Webb can see orange and red visible light. Webb images will be different, but just as beautiful as Hubble’s. Above, there is another comparison of infrared and visible light Hubble images, this time of the Monkey Head Nebula.

5. What will Webb’s first targets be?

The first targets for Webb will be determined through a process similar to that used for the Hubble Space Telescope and will involve our experts, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and scientific community participants.


The first engineering target will come before the first science target and will be used to align the mirror segments and focus the telescope. That will probably be a relatively bright star or possibly a star field.

6. How does Webb compare with Hubble?

Webb is designed to look deeper into space to see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the universe and to look deep into nearby dust clouds to study the formation of stars and planets.


In order to do this, Webb has a much larger primary mirror than Hubble (2.5 times larger in diameter, or about 6 times larger in area), giving it more light-gathering power. It also will have infrared instruments with longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity than Hubble

Finally, Webb will operate much farther from Earth, maintaining its extremely cold operating temperature, stable pointing and higher observing efficiency than with the Earth-orbiting Hubble.

7. What will Webb tell us about planets outside our solar system? Will it take photos of these planets?

Webb will be able to tell us the composition of the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, aka exoplanets. It will observe planetary atmospheres through the transit technique. A transit is when a planet moves across the disc of its parent star. 


Webb will also carry coronographs to enable photography of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) near bright stars (if they are big and bright and far from the star), but they will be only “dots,” not grand panoramas. Coronographs block the bright light of stars, which could hide nearby objects like exoplanets.

Consider how far away exoplanets are from us, and how small they are by comparison to this distance! We didn’t even know what Pluto really looked like until we were able to send an observatory to fly right near it in 2015, and Pluto is in our own solar system!

8. Will we image objects in our own solar system?

Yes! Webb will be able to observe the planets at or beyond the orbit of Mars, satellites, comets, asteroids and objects in the distant, icy Kuiper Belt.

Many important molecules, ices and minerals have strong characteristic signatures at the wavelengths Webb can observe. 


Webb will also monitor the weather of planets and their moons. 

Because the telescope and instruments have to be kept cold, Webb’s protective sunshield will block the inner solar system from view. This means that the Sun, Earth, Moon, Mercury, and Venus, and of course Sun-grazing comets and many known near-Earth objects cannot be observed.

9. How far back will Webb see? 


Webb will be able to see what the universe looked like around a quarter of a billion years (possibly back to 100 million years) after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies started to form.

10. When will Webb launch and how long is the mission?

Webb will launch in 2021 from French Guiana on a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket. 


Webb’s mission lifetime after launch is designed to be at least 5-½ years, and could last longer than 10 years. The lifetime is limited by the amount of fuel used for maintaining the orbit, and by the possibility that Webb’s components will degrade over time in the harsh environment of space.

Looking for some more in-depth FAQs? You can find them HERE.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Carina Nebula: ESO/T. Preibisch
Monkey Head Nebula: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and J. Hester

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Happy 4th of July… From Space!

In Hollywood blockbusters, explosions and eruptions are often among the stars of the show. In space, explosions, eruptions and twinkling of actual stars are a focus for scientists who hope to better understand their births, lives, deaths and how they interact with their surroundings. Spend some of your Fourth of July taking a look at these celestial phenomenon:


Credit: NASA/Chandra X-ray Observatory

An Astral Exhibition

This object became a sensation in the astronomical community when a team of researchers pointed at it with our Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope in 1901, noting that it suddenly appeared as one of the brightest stars in the sky for a few days, before gradually fading away in brightness. Today, astronomers cite it as an example of a “classical nova,” an outburst produced by a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a white dwarf star, the dense remnant of a Sun-like star.


Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

A Twinkling Tapestry

The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resemble a glittering fireworks display. The sparkling centerpiece is a giant cluster of about 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2, named for Swedish astronomer Bengt Westerlund who discovered the grouping in the 1960s. The cluster resides in a raucous stellar breeding ground located 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Carina.


Credit: NASA/THEMIS/Sebastian Saarloos

An Illuminating Aurora

Sometimes during solar magnetic events, solar explosions hurl clouds of magnetized particles into space. Traveling more than a million miles per hour, these coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, made up of hot material called plasma take up to three days to reach Earth. Spacecraft and satellites in the path of CMEs can experience glitches as these plasma clouds pass by. In near-Earth space, magnetic reconnection incites explosions of energy driving charged solar particles to collide with atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. We see these collisions near Earth’s polar regions as the aurora. Three spacecraft from our Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) mission, observed these outbursts known as substorms.


Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope//ESA/STScI

A Shining Supermassive Merger

Every galaxy has a black hole at its center. Usually they are quiet, without gas accretions, like the one in our Milky Way. But if a star creeps too close to the black hole, the gravitational tides can rip away the star’s gaseous matter. Like water spinning around a drain, the gas swirls into a disk around the black hole at such speeds that it heats to millions of degrees. As an inner ring of gas spins into the black hole, gas particles shoot outward from the black hole’s polar regions. Like bullets shot from a rifle, they zoom through the jets at velocities close to the speed of light. Astronomers using our Hubble Space Telescope observed correlations between supermassive black holes and an event similar to tidal disruption, pictured above in the Centaurus A galaxy. 


Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope/ESA

A Stellar Explosion

Supernovae can occur one of two ways. The first occurs when a white dwarf—the remains of a dead star—passes so close to a living star that its matter leaks into the white dwarf. This causes a catastrophic explosion. However most people understand supernovae as the death of a massive star. When the star runs out of fuel toward the end of its life, the gravity at its heart sucks the surrounding mass into its center. At the turn of the 19th century, the binary star system Eta Carinae was faint and undistinguished. Our Hubble Telescope captured this image of Eta Carinae, binary star system. The larger of the two stars in the Eta Carinae system is a huge and unstable star that is nearing the end of its life, and the event that the 19th century astronomers observed was a stellar near-death experience. Scientists call these outbursts supernova impostor events, because they appear similar to supernovae but stop just short of destroying their star.



An Eye-Catching Eruption

Extremely energetic objects permeate the universe. But close to home, the Sun produces its own dazzling lightshow, producing the largest explosions in our solar system and driving powerful solar storms.. When solar activity contorts and realigns the Sun’s magnetic fields, vast amounts of energy can be driven into space. This phenomenon can create a sudden flash of light—a solar flare.The above picture features a filament eruption on the Sun, accompanied by solar flares captured by our Solar Dynamics Observatory.

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