O_o When we peer deep into space, we don’t expect to find something staring back at us…
This galactic ghoul, captured by our Hubble Space Telescope, is actually a titanic head-on collision between two galaxies. Each “eye” is the bright core of a galaxy, one of which slammed into another. The outline of the face is a ring of young blue stars. Other clumps of new stars form a nose and mouth.
Although galaxy collisions are common most of them are not head-on smashups like this Arp-Madore system. Get spooked & find out what lies inside this ghostly apparition, here.
Our James Webb Space Telescope is an epic mission that will give us a window into the early universe, allowing us to see the time period during which the first stars and galaxies formed. Webb will not only change what we know, but also how we think about the night sky and our place in the cosmos. Want to learn more? Join two of our scientists as they talk about what the James Webb Telescope is, why it is being built and what it will help us learn about the universe…
First, meet Dr. Amber Straughn.She grew up in a small farming town in Arkansas, where her fascination with astronomy began under beautifully dark, rural skies. After finishing a PhD in Physics, she came to NASA Goddard to study galaxies using data from our Hubble Space Telescope. In addition to research, Amber’s role with the Webb project’s science team involves working with Communications and Outreach activities. She is looking forward to using data from Webb in her research on galaxy formation and evolution.
We also talked with Dr. John Mather, the Senior Project Scientist for Webb, who leads our science team. He won a Nobel Prize in 2006 for confirming the Big Bang theory with extreme precision via a mission called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission. John was the Principal Investigator (PI) of the Far IR Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) instrument on COBE. He’s an expert on cosmology, and infrared astronomy and instrumentation.
Now, let’s get to the science of Webb!
Dr. Amber Straughn: The James Webb Space Telescope at its core is designed to answer some of the biggest questions we have in astronomy today. And these are questions that go beyond just being science questions; they are questions that really get to the heart of who we are as human beings; questions like where do we come from? How did we get here? And, of course, the big one – are we alone?
To answer the biggest questions in astronomy today we really need a very big telescope. And the James Webb Space Telescope is the biggest telescope we’ve ever attempted to send into space. It sets us up with some really big engineering challenges.
Dr. John Mather: One of the wonderful challenges about astronomy is that we have to imagine something so we can go look for it. But nature has a way of being even more creative than we are, so we have always been surprised by what we see in the sky. That’s why building a telescope has always been interesting. Every time we build a better one, we see something we never imagined was out there. That’s been going on for centuries. This is the next step in that great series, of bigger and better and more powerful telescopes that surely will surprise us in some way that I can’t tell you.
It has never been done before, building a big telescope that will unfold in space. We knew we needed something that was bigger than the rocket to achieve the scientific discoveries that we wanted to make. We had to invent a new way to make the mirrors, a way to focus it out in outer space, several new kinds of infrared detectors, and we had to invent the big unfolding umbrella we call the sunshield.
Amber: One of Webb’s goals is to detect the very first stars and galaxies that were born in the very early universe. This is a part of the universe that we haven’t seen at all yet. We don’t know what’s there, so the telescope in a sense is going to open up this brand-new part of the universe, the part of the universe that got everything started.
John: The first stars and galaxies are really the big mystery for us. We don’t know how that happened. We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know what those stars were like. We have a pretty good idea that they were very much larger than the sun and that they would burn out in a tremendous burst of glory in just a few million years.
Amber: We also want to watch how galaxies grow and change over time. We have questions like how galaxies merge, how black holes form and how gas inflows and outflows affect galaxy evolution. But we’re really missing a key piece of the puzzle, which is how galaxies got their start.
John: Astronomy is one of the most observationally based sciences we’ve ever had. Everything we know about the sky has been a surprise. The ancients knew about the stars, but they didn’t know they were far away. They didn’t know they were like the Sun. Eventually we found that our own galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies and that the Universe is actually very old, but not infinitely old. So that was a big surprise too. Einstein thought, of course the Universe must have an infinite age, without a starting point. Well, he was wrong! Our intuition has just been wrong almost all the time. We’re pretty confident that we don’t know what we’re going to find.
Amber: As an astronomer one of the most exciting things about working on a telescope like this is the prospect of what it will tell us that we haven’t even thought of yet. We have all these really detailed science questions that we’ll ask, that we know to ask, and that we’ll answer. And in a sense that is what science is all about… in answering the questions we come up with more questions. There’s this almost infinite supply of questions, of things that we have to learn. So that’s why we build telescopes to get to this fundamental part of who we are as human beings. We’re explorers, and we want to learn about what our Universe is like.
Webb will be the world’s premier space science observatory. It will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe – including our place in it. Webb is an international project we’re leading with our partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
In this Hubble image, you’ll find 50 spiral and dwarf galaxies hanging out in our cosmic neighborhood. The main focal point of stars is actually a dwarf galaxy. Dwarf galaxies often show a hazy structure, an ill-defined shape and an appearance somewhat akin to a swarm or cloud of stars — and UGC 685 is no exception to this.
These data were gathered under Hubble’s Legacy ExtraGalactic UV Survey (LEGUS) program, the sharpest and most comprehensive ultraviolet survey of star-forming galaxies in the nearby universe.
Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; the LEGUS team, B. Tully, D. Calzetti
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky. 🌟
The final stages of a star’s life allow us a glimpse into the future of our own solar system. This image from our Hubble Space Telescope shows what’s left of a star 10,000 light-years from Earth.
A star like our Sun will, at the end of its life, transform into a red giant. The core of the star will eventually collapse in on itself, ejecting the surface layers outward. After that, all that remains of the star is what we see here: glowing outer layers surrounding a white dwarf star. In just a few thousand years they will have dissipated, and all that will be left to see is the dimly glowing white dwarf. More on this image, here.
We launched our Spitzer Space Telescope into orbit around the Sunday on Aug. 25, 2003. Since then, the observatory has been lifting the veil on the wonders of the cosmos, from our own solar system to faraway galaxies, using infrared light.
Thanks to Spitzer, scientists were able to confirm the presence of seven rocky, Earth-size planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. The telescope has also provided weather maps of hot, gaseous exoplanets and revealed a hidden ring around Saturn. It has illuminated hidden collections of dust in a wide variety of locations, including cosmic nebulas (clouds of gas and dust in space), where young stars form, and swirling galaxies. Spitzer has additionally investigated some of the universe’s oldest galaxies and stared at the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
In honor of Spitzer’s Sweet 16 in space, here are 16 amazing images from the mission.
Giant Star Makes Waves
This Spitzer image shows the giant star Zeta Ophiuchi and the bow shock, or shock wave, in front of it. Visible only in infrared light, the bow shock is created by winds that flow from the star, making ripples in the surrounding dust.
The Seven Sisters Pose for Spitzer
The Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, is a frequent target for night sky observers. This image from Spitzer zooms in on a few members of the sisterhood. The filaments surrounding the stars are dust, and the three colors represent different wavelengths of infrared light.
Young Stars in Their Baby Blanket of Dust
Newborn stars peek out from beneath their blanket of dust in this image of the Rho Ophiuchi nebula. Called “Rho Oph” by astronomers and located about 400 light-years from Earth, it’s one of the closest star-forming regions to our own solar system.
The youngest stars in this image are surrounded by dusty disks of material from which the stars — and their potential planetary systems — are forming. More evolved stars, which have shed their natal material, are blue.
The Infrared Helix
Located about 700 light-years from Earth, the eye-like Helix nebula is a planetary nebula, or the remains of a Sun-like star. When these stars run out of their internal fuel supply, their outer layers puff up to create the nebula. Our Sun will blossom into a planetary nebula when it dies in about 5 billion years.
The Tortured Clouds of Eta Carinae
The bright star at the center of this image is Eta Carinae, one of the most massive stars in the Milky Way galaxy. With around 100 times the mass of the Sun and at least 1 million times the brightness, Eta Carinae releases a tremendous outflow of energy that has eroded the surrounding nebula.
Spitzer Spies Spectacular Sombrero
Located 28 million light-years from Earth, Messier 104 — also called the Sombrero galaxy or M104 — is notable for its nearly edge-on orientation as seen from our planet. Spitzer observations were the first to reveal the smooth, bright ring of dust (seen in red) circling the galaxy.
Spiral Galaxy Messier 81
This infrared image of the galaxy Messier 81, or M81, reveals lanes of dust illuminated by active star formation throughout the galaxy’s spiral arms. Located in the northern constellation of Ursa Major (which includes the Big Dipper), M81 is also about 12 million light-years from Earth.
Spitzer Reveals Stellar Smoke
Messier 82 — also known as the Cigar galaxy or M82 — is a hotbed of young, massive stars. In visible light, it appears as a diffuse bar of blue light, but in this infrared image, scientists can see huge red clouds of dust blown out into space by winds and radiation from those stars.
A Pinwheel Galaxy Rainbow
This image of Messier 101, also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy or M101, combines data in the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-rays from Spitzer and three other NASA space telescopes: Hubble, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer’s Far Ultraviolet detector (GALEX) and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The galaxy is about 70% larger than our own Milky Way, with a diameter of about 170,000 light-years, and sits at a distance of 21 million light-years from Earth. Read more about its colors here.
The first ripple appears as a bright blue outer ring around the larger object, radiating ultraviolet light visible to GALEX. The clumps of pink along the outer blue ring are X-ray (observed by Chandra) and ultraviolet radiation.
Spitzer and Hubble Create Colorful Masterpiece
Located 1,500 light-years from Earth, the Orion nebula is the brightest spot in the sword of the constellation Orion. Four massive stars, collectively called the Trapezium, appear as a yellow smudge near the image center. Visible and ultraviolet data from Hubble appear as swirls of green that indicate the presence of gas heated by intense ultraviolet radiation from the Trapezium’s stars. Less-embedded stars appear as specks of green, and foreground stars as blue spots. Meanwhile, Spitzer’s infrared view exposes carbon-rich molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, shown here as wisps of red and orange. Orange-yellow dots are infant stars deeply embedded in cocoons of dust and gas.
A Space Spider Watches Over Young Stars
Located about 10,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Auriga, the Spider nebula resides in the outer part of the Milky Way. Combining data from Spitzer and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), the image shows green clouds of dust illuminated by star formation in the region.
North America Nebula in Different Lights
This view of the North America nebula combines visible light collected by the Digitized Sky Survey with infrared light from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Blue hues represent visible light, while infrared is displayed as red and green. Clusters of young stars (about 1 million years old) can be found throughout the image.
Spitzer Captures Our Galaxy’s Bustling Center
This infrared mosaic offers a stunning view of the Milky Way galaxy’s busy center. The pictured region, located in the Sagittarius constellation, is 900 light-years agross and shows hundreds of thousands of mostly old stars amid clouds of glowing dust lit up by younger, more massive stars. Our Sun is located 26,000 light-years away in a more peaceful, spacious neighborhood, out in the galactic suburbs.
The Eternal Life of Stardust
The Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy located about 160,000 light-years from Earth, looks like a choppy sea of dust in this infrared portrait. The blue color, seen most prominently in the central bar, represents starlight from older stars. The chaotic, bright regions outside this bar are filled with hot, massive stars buried in thick blankets of dust.
A Stellar Family Portrait
In this large celestial mosaic from Spitzer, there’s a lot to see, including multiple clusters of stars born from the same dense clumps of gas and dust. The grand green-and-orange delta filling most of the image is a faraway nebula. The bright white region at its tip is illuminated by massive stars, and dust that has been heated by the stars’ radiation creates the surrounding red glow.
Managed by our Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Spitzer’s primary mission lasted five-and-a-half years and ended when it ran out of the liquid helium coolant necessary to operate two of its three instruments. But, its passive-cooling design has allowed part of its third instrument to continue operating for more than 10 additional years. The mission is scheduled to end on Jan. 30, 2020.
It looks like our Hubble Space Telescope captured an image of a peaceful, cosmic butterfly unfurling its celestial wings, but the truth is vastly more violent. In the Butterfly Nebula, layers of gas are being ejected from a dying star. Medium-mass stars grow unstable as they run out of fuel, which leads them to blast tons of material out into space at speeds of over a million miles per hour!
Streams of intense ultraviolet radiation cause the cast-off material to glow, but eventually the nebula will fade and leave behind only a small stellar corpse called a white dwarf. Our middle-aged Sun can expect a similar fate once it runs out of fuel in about six billion years.
Planetary nebulas like this one aren’t actually related to planets; the term was coined by astronomer William Herschel, who actually discovered the Butterfly Nebula in 1826. Through his small telescope, planetary nebulas looked like glowing, planet-like orbs. While stars that generate planetary nebulas may have once had planets orbiting them, scientists expect that the fiery death throes these stars undergo will ultimately leave any planets in their vicinity completely uninhabitable.
That star stuff you see here? That’s what you’re made of. You possess the elements ✨
This composite image from our Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Isaac Newton Telescope shows high-energy X-rays emitted by young, massive stars in the star cluster Cygnus OB2. This year we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Chandra’s launch. Want to dive deeper? Click here
Our Hubble Space Telescope spotted this planetary nebula in the constellation of Orion. It’s really a vast orb of gas in space, with its aging star in the center… but what does it look like to you? 🤔
When stars like the Sun grow advanced in age, they expand and glow red. These so-called red giants then begin to lose their outer layers of material into space. More than half of such a star’s mass can be shed in this manner, forming a shell of surrounding gas. At the same time, the star’s core shrinks and grows hotter, emitting ultraviolet light that causes the expelled gases to glow.
Space telescopes like Hubble and our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope use light not only to create images, but can also break light down into individual colors (or wavelengths). Studying light this way can give us a lot of detail about the object that emitted that light. For example, studying the components of the light from exoplanets can tell us about its atmosphere’s color, chemical makeup, and temperature. How does this work?
Remember the primary colors you learned about in elementary school?
Those colors are known as the pigment or subtractive colors. Every other color is some combination of the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.
Light also has its own primary colors, and they work in a similar way. These colors are known as additive or light colors.
TVs make use of light’s colors to create the pictures we see. Each pixel of a TV screen contains some amount of red, green and blue light. The amount of each light determines the overall color of the pixel. So, each color on the TV comes from a combination of the primary colors of light: red, green and blue.
Space telescope images of celestial objects are also a combination of the colors of light.
Every pixel that is collected can be broken down into its base colors. To learn even more, astronomers break the red, green and blue light down into even smaller sections called wavelengths.
This breakdown is called a spectrum.
With the right technology, every pixel of light can also be measured as a spectrum.
Images show us the big picture, while a spectrum reveals finer details. Astronomers use spectra to learn things like what molecules are in planet atmospheres and distant galaxies.
An Integral Field Unit, or IFU, is a special tool on the James Webb Space Telescope that captures images and spectra at the same time.
The IFU creates a unique spectrum for each pixel of the image the telescope is capturing, providing scientists with an enormous amount of valuable, detailed data. So, with an IFU we can get an image, many spectra and a better understanding of our universe.
Watch the full video where this method of learning about planetary atmospheres is explained:
The James Webb Space Telescope is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first galaxies that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born and tell us about potentially habitable planets around other stars.