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.
The path through the solar system is a rocky road. Asteroids, comets, Kuiper Belt Objects—all kinds of small bodies of rock, metal and ice are in constant motion as they orbit the Sun. But what’s the difference between them, anyway? And why do these miniature worlds fascinate space explorers so much? The answer is profound: they may hold the keys to better understanding where we all come from. Here’s 10 things to know about the solar system this week:
This picture of Eros, the first of an asteroid taken from an orbiting spacecraft, came from our NEAR mission in February 2000. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Asteroids are rocky, airless worlds that orbit our Sun. They are remnants left over from the formation of our solar system, ranging in size from the length of a car to about as wide as a large city. Asteroids are diverse in composition; some are metallic while others are rich in carbon, giving them a coal-black color. They can be “rubble piles,” loosely held together by their own gravity, or they can be solid rocks.
Most of the asteroids in our solar system reside in a region called the main asteroid belt. This vast, doughnut-shaped ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contains hundreds of thousands of asteroids, maybe millions. But despite what you see in the movies, there is still a great deal of space between each asteroid. With all due respect to C3PO, the odds of flying through the asteroid belt without colliding with one are actually pretty good.
Other asteroids (and comets) follow different orbits, including some that enter Earth’s neighborhood. These are called near-Earth objects, or NEOs. We can actually keep track of the ones we have discovered and predict where they are headed. The Minor Planet Center (MPC) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) do that very thing. Telescopes around the world and in space are used to spot new asteroids and comets, and the MPC and CNEOS, along with international colleagues, calculate where those asteroids and comets are going and determine whether they might pose any impact threat to Earth.
For scientists, asteroids play the role of time capsules from the early solar system, having been preserved in the vacuum of space for billions of years. What’s more, the main asteroid belt may have been a source of water—and organic compounds critical to life—for the inner planets like Earth.
The nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as seen in January 2015 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Comets also orbit the Sun, but they are more like snowballs than space rocks. Each comet has a center called a nucleus that contains icy chunks of frozen gases, along with bits of rock and dust. When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the Sun, the comet heats up and spews dust and gases, forming a giant, glowing ball called a coma around its nucleus, along with two tails – one made of dust and the other of excited gas (ions). Driven by a constant flow of particles from the Sun called the solar wind, the tails point away from the Sun, sometimes stretching for millions of miles.
While there are likely billions of comets in the solar system, the current confirmed number is 3,535. Like asteroids, comets are leftover material from the formation of our solar system around 4.6 billion years ago, and they preserve secrets from the earliest days of the Sun’s family. Some of Earth’s water and other chemical constituents could have been delivered by comet impacts.
An artist re-creation of a collision in deep space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Meteoroids are fragments and debris in space resulting from collisions among asteroids, comets, moons and planets. They are among the smallest “space rocks.” However, we can actually see them when they streak through our atmosphere in the form of meteors and meteor showers.
This photograph, taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, provides the unusual perspective of looking down on a meteor as it passes through the atmosphere. The image was taken on Aug. 13, 2011, during the Perseid meteor shower that occurs every August. Image credit: NASA
Meteors are meteoroids that fall through Earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speeds. The pressure and heat they generate as they push through the air causes them to glow and create a streak of light in the sky. Most burn up completely before touching the ground. We often refer to them as “shooting stars.” Meteors may be made mostly of rock, metal or a combination of the two.
Scientists estimate that about 48.5 tons (44,000 kilograms) of meteoritic material falls on Earth each day.
The constellation Orion is framed by two meteors during the Perseid shower on Aug. 12, 2018 in Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah. Image credit: NASA/Bill Dunford
5. Meteor Showers
Several meteors per hour can usually be seen on any given night. Sometimes the number increases dramatically—these events are termed meteor showers. They occur when Earth passes through trails of particles left by comets. When the particles enter Earth’s atmosphere, they burn up, creating hundreds or even thousands of bright streaks in the sky. We can easily plan when to watch meteor showers because numerous showers happen annually as Earth’s orbit takes it through the same patches of comet debris. This year’s Orionid meteor shower peaks on Oct. 21.
An SUV-sized asteroid, 2008TC#, impacted on Oct. 7, 2008, in the Nubian Desert, Northern Sudan. Dr. Peter Jenniskens, NASA/SETI, joined Muawia Shaddas of the University of Khartoum in leading an expedition on a search for samples. Image credit: NASA/SETI/P. Jenniskens
Meteorites are asteroid, comet, moon and planet fragments (meteoroids) that survive the heated journey through Earth’s atmosphere all the way to the ground. Most meteorites found on Earth are pebble to fist size, but some are larger than a building.
Early Earth experienced many large meteorite impacts that caused extensive destruction. Well-documented stories of modern meteorite-caused injury or death are rare. In the first known case of an extraterrestrial object to have injured a human being in the U.S., Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama, was severely bruised by a 8-pound (3.6-kilogram) stony meteorite that crashed through her roof in November 1954.
The largest object in the asteroid belt is actually a dwarf planet, Ceres. This view comes from our Dawn mission. The color is approximately as it would appear to the eye. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
7. Dwarf Planets
Don’t let the name fool you; despite their small size, dwarf planets are worlds that are just as compelling as their larger siblings. Dwarf planets are defined by astronomers as bodies massive enough to be shaped by gravity into a round or nearly round shape, but they don’t have enough of their own gravitational muscle to clear their path of other objects as they orbit the Sun. In our solar system, dwarf planets are mostly found in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune; Pluto is the best-known example. But the largest object in the asteroid belt is the dwarf planet Ceres. Like Pluto, Ceres shows signs of active geology, including ice volcanoes.
8. Kuiper Belt Objects
The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region beyond Neptune that extends from about 30 to 55 astronomical units – that is, 30 to 55 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. There may be hundreds of thousands of icy bodies and a trillion or more comets in this distant region of our solar system.
An artist’s rendition of the New Horizons spacecraft passing by the Kuiper Belt Object MU69 in January 2019. Image credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Besides Pluto, some of the mysterious worlds of the Kuiper Belt include Eris, Sedna, Quaoar, Makemake and Haumea. Like asteroids and comets, Kuiper Belt objects are time capsules, perhaps kept even more pristine in their icy realm.
This chart puts solar system distances in perspective. The scale bar is in astronomical units (AU), with each set distance beyond 1 AU representing 10 times the previous distance. One AU is the distance from the Sun to the Earth, which is about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. Neptune, the most distant planet from the Sun, is about 30 AU. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
9. Oort Cloud Objects
The Oort Cloud is a group of icy bodies beginning roughly 186 billion miles (300 billion kilometers) away from the Sun. While the planets of our solar system orbit in a flat plane, the Oort Cloud is believed to be a giant spherical shell surrounding the Sun, planets and Kuiper Belt Objects. It is like a big, thick bubble around our solar system. The Oort Cloud’s icy bodies can be as large as mountains, and sometimes larger.
This dark, cold expanse is by far the solar system’s largest and most distant region. It extends all the way to about 100,000 AU (100,000 times the distance between Earth and the Sun) – a good portion of the way to the next star system. Comets from the Oort Cloud can have orbital periods of thousands or even millions of years. Consider this: At its current speed of about a million miles a day, our Voyager 1 spacecraft won’t reach the Oort Cloud for more than 300 years. It will then take about 30,000 years for the spacecraft to traverse the Oort Cloud, and exit our solar system entirely.
This animation shows our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample of the asteroid Bennu, which it is expected to do in 2020. Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
10. The Explorers
Fortunately, even though the Oort Cloud is extremely distant, most of the small bodies we’ve been discussing are more within reach. In fact, NASA and other space agencies have a whole flotilla of robotic spacecraft that are exploring these small worlds up close. Our mechanical emissaries act as our eyes and hands in deep space, searching for whatever clues these time capsules hold.
A partial roster of our current or recent missions to small, rocky destinations includes:
OSIRIS-REx – Now approaching the asteroid Bennu, where it will retrieve a sample in 2020 and return it to the Earth for close scrutiny.
New Horizons – Set to fly close to MU69 or “Ultima Thule,” an object a billion miles past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt on Jan. 1, 2019. When it does, MU69 will become the most distant object humans have ever seen up close.
Psyche – Planned for launch in 2022, the spacecraft will explore a metallic asteroid of the same name, which may be the ejected core of a baby planet that was destroyed long ago.
Lucy – Slated to investigate two separate groups of asteroids, called Trojans, that share the orbit of Jupiter – one group orbits ahead of the planet, while the other orbits behind. Lucy is planned to launch in 2021.
Dawn – Finishing up a successful seven-year mission orbiting planet-like worlds Ceres and Vesta in the asteroid belt.
Plus these missions from other space agencies:
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s Hayabusa2– Just landed a series of small probes on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu.
The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Rosetta – Orbited the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and dispatched a lander to its surface.
On #WorldTeachersDay, we are recognizing our two current astronauts who are former classroom teachers, Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold, as well as honoring teachers everywhere. What better way to celebrate than by learning from teachers who are literally out-of-this-world!
During the past Year of Education on Station, astronauts connected with more than 175,000 students and 40,000 teachers during live Q & A sessions.
Let’s take a look at some of the questions those students asked:
The view from space is supposed to be amazing. Is it really that great and could you explain?
Taking a look at our home planet from the International Space Station is one of the most fascinating things to see! The views and vistas are unforgettable, and you want to take everyone you know to the Cupola (window) to experience this. Want to see what the view is like? Check out earthkam to learn more.
What is the most overlooked attribute of an astronaut?
If you are a good listener and follower, you can be successful on the space station. As you work with your team, you can rely on each other’s strengths to achieve a common goal. Each astronaut needs to have expeditionary skills to be successful. Check out some of those skills here.
Are you able to grow any plants on the International Space Station?
On Sept. 15, 2017, our Cassini spacecraft ended its epic exploration of Saturn with a planned dive into the planet’s atmosphere–sending back new science to the very last second. The spacecraft is gone, but the science continues!
New research emerging from the final orbits represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system – especially the mysterious, never-before-explored region between the planet and its rings. Some preconceived ideas are turning out to be wrong while new questions are being raised. How did they form? What holds them in place? What are they made of?
Six teams of researchers are publishing their work Oct. 5 in the journal Science, based on findings from Cassini’s Grand Finale. That’s when, as the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team steered Cassini spectacularly close to Saturn in 22 orbits before deliberately vaporizing it in a final plunge into the atmosphere in September 2017.
Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the engineering push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.
Many more Grand Finale science results are to come, but today’s highlights include:
Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins rain down from Saturn’s rings into its upper atmosphere. Scientists saw water and silicates, but they were surprised to see also methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The composition of organics is different from that found on moon Enceladus – and also different from those on moon Titan, meaning there are at least three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in the Saturn system.
For the first time, Cassini saw up close how rings interact with the planet and observed inner-ring particles and gases falling directly into the atmosphere. Some particles take on electric charges and spiral along magnetic-field lines, falling into Saturn at higher latitudes – a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” But scientists were surprised to see that others are dragged quickly into Saturn at the equator. And it’s all falling out of the rings faster than scientists thought – as much as 10,000 kg of material per second.
Scientists were surprised to see what the material looks like in the gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. They knew that the particles throughout the rings ranged from large to small. They thought material in the gap would look the same. But the sampling showed mostly tiny, nanograin- and micron-sized particles, like smoke, telling us that some yet-unknown process is grinding up particles. What could it be? Future research into the final bits of data sent by Cassini may hold the answer.
Saturn and its rings are even more interconnected than scientists thought. Cassini revealed a previously unknown electric current system that connects the rings to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.
Scientists discovered a new radiation belt around Saturn, close to the planet and composed of energetic particles. They found that while the belt actually intersects with the innermost ring, the ring is so tenuous that it doesn’t block the belt from forming.
Unlike every other planet with a magnetic field in our Solar System, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost completely aligned with its spin axis. Think of the planet and the magnetic field as completely separate things that are both spinning. Both have the same center point, but they each have their own axis about which they spin. But for Saturn the two axes are essentially the same – no other planet does that, and we did not think it was even possible for this to happen. This new data shows a magnetic-field tilt of less than 0.0095 degrees. (Earth’s magnetic field is tilted 11 degrees from its spin axis.) According to everything scientists know about how planetary magnetic fields are generated, Saturn should not have one. It’s a mystery physicists will be working to solve.
Cassini flew above Saturn’s magnetic poles, directly sampling regions where radio emissions are generated. The findings more than doubled the number of reported crossings of radio sources from the planet, one of the few non-terrestrial locations where scientists have been able to study a mechanism believed to operate throughout the universe. How are these signals generated? That’s still a mystery researchers are looking to uncover.
For the Cassini mission, the science rolling out from Grand Finale orbits confirms that the calculated risk of diving into the gap – skimming the upper atmosphere and skirting the edge of the inner rings – was worthwhile.
Almost everything going on in that region turned out to be a surprise, which was the importance of going there, to explore a place we’d never been before. And the expedition really paid off!
Analysis of Cassini data from the spacecraft’s instruments will be ongoing for years to come, helping to paint a clearer picture of Saturn.
To read the papers published in Science, visit: URL to papers
On Sept. 6, 2018, shortly after the remnants of Typhoon Jebi drenched southern Hokkaido, a powerful earthquake rattled the Japanese island. The 6.6-magnitude quake shook the surface enough to unleash hundreds of landslides.
The Landsat 8 satellite acquired imagery of the widespread damage. An image acquired on Sept. 15, 2018, shows mud and debris in a hilly area east of Abira. For comparison, the previous image shows the same area on July 26, 2017.
This year, we’re celebrating a Year of Education on the Station as astronauts and former teachers Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold have made the International Space Station their home. While aboard, they have been sharing their love of science, technology, engineering and math, along with their passion for teaching. With the Year of Education on the Station is coming to a close, here are some of the highlights from students speaking to the #TeacherOnBoard from across the country!
Why do you feel it’s important to complete Christa McAuliffe’s lessons?
“The loss of Challenger not only affected a generation of school teachers but also a generation of school children who are now adults.”Ricky’s personal mission was to bring the Challenger Mission full circle and give it a sense of closure by teaching Christa’s Lost Lessons. See some of Christa’s Lost Lessons here.
Have you ever poured water out to see what happens?
The concept of surface tension is very apparent on the space station. Fluids do not spill out, they stick to each other. Cool fact: you can drink your fluids from the palm of your hand if you wanted to! Take a look at this demonstration that talks a little more about tension.
How does your equipment stay attached to the wall?
The use of bungee cords as well as hook and loop help keep things in place in a microgravity environment. These two items can be found on the space station and on the astronaut’s clothing! Their pants often have hook and loop so they can keep things nearby if they need to be using their hands for something else.
Did being a teacher provide any advantage to being an astronaut?
Being an effective communicator and having the ability to be adaptable are great skills to have as a teacher and as an astronaut. Joe Acaba has found that these skills have assisted him in his professional development.
Since you do not use your bones and muscles as often because of microgravity, do you have to exercise? What type can you do?
The exercises that astronauts do aboard the space station help them maintain their bone density and muscle mass. They have access to resistance training through ARED (Advanced Resistive Exercise Device) which is a weight machine and for cardio, there is a bicycle and treadmill available to keep up with their physical activity.
Exactly sixty years ago today, we opened our doors for the first time. And since then, we have opened up a universe of discovery and innovation.
There are so many achievements to celebrate from the past six decades, there’s no way we can go through all of them. If you want to dive deeper into our history of exploration, check out NASA: 60 Years and Counting.
In the meantime, take a moonwalk down memory lane with us while we remember a few of our most important accomplishments from the past sixty years!
In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which effectively created our agency. We officially opened for business on October 1.
To learn more about the start of our space program, watch our video: How It All Began.
Alongside the U.S. Air Force, we implemented the X-15 hypersonic aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s to improve aircraft and spacecraft.
The X-15 is capable of speeds exceeding Mach 6 (4,500 mph) at altitudes of 67 miles, reaching the very edge of space.
Dubbed the “finest and most productive research aircraft ever seen,” the X-15 was officially retired on October 24, 1968. The information collected by the X-15 contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. The crew of Apollo 11 had the distinction of completing the first return of soil and rock samples from beyond Earth.
Astronaut Gene Cernan, during Apollo 17, was the last person to have walked on the surface of the moon. (For now!)
The Lunar Roving Vehicle was a battery-powered rover that the astronauts used during the last three Apollo missions.
To learn more about other types of technology that we have either invented or improved, watch our video: Trailblazing Technology.
Our long-term Earth-observing satellite program began on July 23, 1972 with the launch of Landsat 1, the first in a long series (Landsat 9 is expected to launch in 2020!) We work directly with the U.S. Geological Survey to use Landsat to monitor and manage resources such as food, water, and forests.
Landsat data is one of many tools that help us observe in immense detail how our planet is changing. From algae blooms to melting glaciers to hurricane flooding, Landsat is there to help us understand our own planet better.
Off the Earth, for the Earth.
To learn more about how we contribute to the Earth sciences, watch our video: Home, Sweet Home.
Space Transportation System-1, or STS-1, was the first orbital spaceflight of our Space Shuttle program.
The first orbiter, Columbia, launched on April 12, 1981. Over the next thirty years, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour would be added to the space shuttle fleet.
Together, they flew 135 missions and carried 355 people into space using the first reusable spacecraft.
On January 16, 1978, we selected a class of 35 new astronauts–including the first women and African-American astronauts.
And on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to enter space on board Challenger for STS-7.
Everybody loves Hubble! The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit on April 24, 1990, and has been blowing our minds ever since.
Hubble has not only captured stunning views of our distant stars and galaxies, but has also been there for once-in-a-lifetime cosmic events. For example, on January 6, 2010, Hubble captured what appeared to be a head-on collision between two asteroids–something no one has ever seen before.
In this image, Hubble captures the Carina Nebula illuminating a three-light-year tall pillar of gas and dust.
To learn more about how we have contributed to our understanding of the solar system and beyond, watch our video: What’s Out There?
Cooperation to build the International Space Station began in 1993 between the United States, Russia, Japan, and Canada.
The dream was fully realized on November 2, 2000, when Expedition 1 crew members boarded the station, signifying humanity’s permanent presence in space!
Although the orbiting lab was only a couple of modules then, it has grown tremendously since then!
Earth is a complex, dynamic system. For 60 years, we have studied our changing planet, and our understanding continues to expand with the use of new technologies. With data from satellites, instruments on the International Space Station, airborne missions, balloons, and observations from ships and on land, we track changes to land, water, ice, and the atmosphere. Application of our Earth observations help improve life now and for future generations. Since we opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, our history tells a story of exploration, innovation and discoveries. The next 60 years, that story continues. Learn more: https://www.nasa.gov/60
It is part of the human spirit to explore. During 60 years, we have selected 350 people as astronauts to lead the way. For nearly two decades, humans have been living and working aboard the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit to enable future missions forward to the Moon and on to Mars while also leading discoveries that improve life on Earth. Since we opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, our history tells a story of exploration, innovation and discoveries. The next 60 years, that story continues. Learn more: https://www.nasa.gov/60
Technology drives exploration. For 60 years, we have advanced technology to meet the rigorous needs of our missions. From GPS navigation to water filtration systems, our technologies developed for space improve your daily life on Earth. We continue to innovate and explore. Since we opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, our history tells a story of exploration, innovation and discoveries. The next 60 years, that story continues. Learn more: https://www.nasa.gov/60