Category: telescope

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

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

10 Steps to Confirm a Planet Around Another St…

So you think you found an exoplanet – a planet around another star?
It’s not as simple as pointing a telescope to the sky and looking for a
planet that waves back. Scientists gather many observations and
carefully analyze their data before they can be even somewhat sure that
they’ve discovered new worlds.

Here are 10 things to know about finding
and confirming exoplanets.


This is an illustration of the different elements in our exoplanet
program, including ground-based observatories, like the W. M. Keck
Observatory, and space-based observatories like Hubble, Spitzer,
Kepler, TESS, James Webb Space Telescope, WFIRST and future missions.

1. Pick your tool to take a look.

The vast majority of planets around other stars have been found
through the transit method so far. This technique involves monitoring
the amount of light that a star gives off over time, and looking for
dips in brightness that may indicate an orbiting planet passing in front
of the star.

We have two specialized exoplanet-hunting telescopes scanning the
sky for new planets right now – Kepler and the Transiting Exoplanet
Survey Satellite (TESS)
– and they both work this way. Other methods of
finding exoplanets include radial velocity (looking for a “wobble” in a
star’s position caused by a planet’s gravity), direct imaging (blocking
the light of the star to see the planet) and microlensing (watching for
events where a star passes in front of another star, and the gravity of
the first star acts as a lens).

Here’s more about finding exoplanets.


2. Get the data.

To find a planet, scientists need to get data from telescopes,
whether those telescopes are in space or on the ground. But telescopes
don’t capture photos of planets with nametags. Instead, telescopes
designed for the transit method show us how brightly thousands of stars
are shining over time. TESS, which launched in April and just began
collecting science data, beams its stellar observations back to Earth
through our Deep Space Network, and then scientists get to work.


3. Scan the data for planets.

Researchers combing through TESS data are looking for those transit
events that could indicate planets around other stars. If the star’s
light lessens by the same amount on a regular basis – for example,
every 10 days – this may indicate a planet with an orbital period (or
“year”) of 10 days. The standard requirement for planet candidates from
TESS is at least two transits – that is, two equal dips in brightness
from the same star.


4. Make sure the planet signature couldn’t be something else.

Not all dips in a star’s brightness are caused by transiting planets.
There may be another object – such as a companion star, a group of
asteroids, a cloud of dust or a failed star called a brown dwarf, that
makes a regular trip around the target star. There could also be
something funky going on with the telescope’s behavior, how it delivered
the data, or other “artifacts” in data that just aren’t planets.
Scientists must rule out all non-planet options to the best of their
ability before moving forward.


5. Follow up with a second detection method.

Finding the same planet candidate using two different techniques is a
strong sign that the planet exists, and is the standard for
“confirming” a planet. That’s why a vast network of ground-based
telescopes will be looking for the same planet candidates that TESS
discovers. It is also possible that TESS will spot a planet candidate
already detected by another telescope in the past. With these combined
observations, the planet could then be confirmed. The first planet TESS
discovered, Pi Mensae c, orbits a star previously observed with the
radial-velocity method on the ground. Scientists compared the TESS data
and the radial-velocity data from that star to confirm the presence of
planet “c.”

Scientists using the radial-velocity detection method see a star’s
wobble caused by a planet’s gravity, and can rule out other kinds of
objects such as companion stars. Radial-velocity detection also allows
scientists to calculate the mass of the planet.


6. …or at least another telescope.

Other space telescopes may also be used to help confirm exoplanets,
characterize them and even discover additional planets around the same
stars. If the planet is detected by the same method, but by two
different telescopes, and has received enough scrutiny that the
scientists are more than 99 percent sure it’s a planet, it is said to be
“validated” instead of “confirmed.”


7. Write a paper.

After thoroughly analyzing the data, and running tests to make sure
that their result still looks like the signature of a planet, scientists
write a formal paper describing their findings. Using the transit
method, they can also report the size of the planet. The planet’s radius
is related to how much light it blocks from the star, as well as the
size of the star itself. The scientists then submit the study to a


8. Wait for peer review.

Scientific journals have a rigorous peer review process. This means
scientific experts not involved in the study review it and make sure the
findings look sound. The peer-reviewers may have questions or
suggestions for the scientists. When everyone agrees on a version of the
study, it gets published.

9. Publish the study.

When the study is published, scientists can officially say they have
found a new planet. This may still not be the end of the story, however.
For example, the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile first thought they had
discovered three Earth-size planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.
When our Spitzer Space Telescope and other ground-based telescopes
followed up, they found that one of the original reported planets (the
original TRAPPIST-1d) did not exist, but they discovered five others
–bringing the total up to seven wondrous rocky worlds.


10. Catalog and celebrate – and look closer if you can!

Confirmed planets get added to our official catalog. So far,
Kepler has sent back the biggest bounty of confirmed exoplanets of any
telescope – more than 2,600 to date. TESS, which just began its planet
search, is expected to discover many thousands more. Ground-based
follow-up will help determine if these planets are gaseous or rocky, and
possibly more about their atmospheres. The forthcoming James Webb Space
will be able to take a deeper look at the atmospheres of the
most interesting TESS discoveries.

Scientists sometimes even uncover planets with the help of people like you: exoplanet K2-138 was discovered through citizen scientists
in Kepler’s K2 mission data. Based on surveys so far, scientists
calculate that almost every star in the Milky Way should have at least
one planet. That makes billions more, waiting to be found! Stay up to
date with our latest discoveries using this exoplanet counter.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

Solar System 10 Things: Spitzer Space Telescop…

Our Spitzer Space Telescope is celebrating 15 years since its launch on August 25, 2003. This remarkable spacecraft has made discoveries its designers never even imagined, including some of the seven Earth-size planets of TRAPPIST-1. Here are some key facts about Spitzer:

1. Spitzer is one of our Great Observatories.

Our Great Observatory Program aimed to explore the universe with four large space telescopes, each specialized in viewing the universe in different wavelengths of light. The other Great Observatories are our Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. By combining data from different kinds of telescopes, scientists can paint a fuller picture of our universe.

2. Spitzer operates in infrared light.

Infrared wavelengths of light, which primarily come from heat radiation, are too long to be seen with human eyes, but are important for exploring space — especially when it comes to getting information about something extremely far away. From turbulent clouds where stars are born to small asteroids close to Earth’s orbit, a wide range of phenomena can be studied in infrared light. Objects too faint or distant for optical telescopes to detect, hidden by dense clouds of space dust, can often be seen with Spitzer. In this way, Spitzer acts as an extension of human vision to explore the universe, near and far.

What’s more, Spitzer doesn’t have to contend with Earth’s atmosphere, daily temperature variations or day-night cycles, unlike ground-based telescopes. With a mirror less than 1 meter in diameter, Spitzer in space is more sensitive than even a 10-meter-diameter telescope on Earth.

3. Spitzer was the first spacecraft to fly in an Earth-trailing orbit.

Rather than circling Earth, as Hubble does, Spitzer orbits the Sun on almost the same path as Earth. But Spitzer moves slower than Earth, so the spacecraft drifts farther away from our planet each year.

This “Earth-trailing orbit” has many advantages. Being farther from Earth than a satellite, it receives less heat from our planet and enjoys a naturally cooler environment. Spitzer also benefits from a wider view of the sky by orbiting the Sun. While its field of view changes throughout the year, at any given time it can see about one-third of the sky. Our Kepler space telescope, famous for finding thousands of exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – also settled in an Earth-trailing orbit six years after Spitzer.

4. Spitzer began in a “cold mission.”

Spitzer has far outlived its initial requirement of 2.5 years. The Spitzer team calls the first 5.5 years “the cold mission” because the spacecraft’s instruments were deliberately cooled down during that time. Liquid helium coolant kept Spitzer’s instruments just a few degrees above absolute zero (which is minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273 degrees Celsius) in this first part of the mission.

5. The “warm mission” was still pretty cold.

Spitzer entered what was called the “warm mission” when the 360 liters of liquid helium coolant that was chilling its instruments ran out in May 2009.

At the “warm” temperature of minus 405 Fahrenheit, two of Spitzer’s instruments – the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) and Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) – stopped working. But two of the four detector arrays in the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) persisted. These “channels” of the camera have driven Spitzer’s explorations since then.

6. Spitzer wasn’t designed to study exoplanets, but made huge strides in this area.

Exoplanet science was in its infancy in 2003 when Spitzer launched, so the mission’s first scientists and engineers had no idea it could observe planets beyond our solar system. But the telescope’s accurate star-targeting system and the ability to control unwanted changes in temperature have made it a useful tool for studying exoplanets. During the Spitzer mission, engineers have learned how to control the spacecraft’s pointing more precisely to find and characterize exoplanets, too.

Using what’s called the “transit method,” Spitzer can stare at a star and detect periodic dips in brightness that happen when a planet crosses a star’s face. In one of its most remarkable achievements, Spitzer discovered three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and confirmed that the system has seven Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star. Spitzer data also helped scientists determine that all seven planets are rocky, and made these the best-understood exoplanets to date.

Spitzer can also use a technique called microlensing to find planets closer to the center of our galaxy. When a star passes in front of another star, the gravity of the first star can act as a lens, making the light from the more distant star appear brighter. Scientists are using microlensing to look for a blip in that brightening, which could mean that the foreground star has a planet orbiting it. Microlensing could not have been done early in the mission when Spitzer was closer to Earth, but now that the spacecraft is farther away, it has a better chance of measuring these events.

7. Spitzer is a window into the distant past.

The spacecraft has observed and helped discover some of the most distant objects in the universe, helping scientists understand where we came from. Originally, Spitzer’s camera designers had hoped the spacecraft would detect galaxies about 12 billion light-years away. In fact, Spitzer has surpassed that, and can see even farther back in time – almost to the beginning of the universe. In collaboration with Hubble, Spitzer helped characterize the galaxy GN-z11 about 13.4 billion light-years away, whose light has been traveling since 400 million years after the big bang. It is the farthest galaxy known.

8. Spitzer discovered Saturn’s largest ring.

Everyone knows Saturn has distinctive rings, but did you know its largest ring was only discovered in 2009, thanks to Spitzer? Because this outer ring doesn’t reflect much visible light, Earth-based telescopes would have a hard time seeing it. But Spitzer saw the infrared glow from the cool dust in the ring. It begins 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Saturn and extends about 7.4 million miles (12 million kilometers) beyond that.

9. The “Beyond Phase” pushes Spitzer to new limits.

In 2016, Spitzer entered its “Beyond phase,” with a name reflecting how the spacecraft operates beyond its original scope.

As Spitzer floats away from Earth, its increasing distance presents communication challenges. Engineers must point Spitzer’s antenna at higher angles toward the Sun in order to talk to our planet, which exposes the spacecraft to more heat. At the same time, the spacecraft’s solar panels receive less sunlight because they point away from the Sun, putting more stress on the battery.

The team decided to override some autonomous safety systems so Spitzer could continue to operate in this riskier mode. But so far, the Beyond phase is going smoothly.

10. Spitzer paves the way for future infrared telescopes.

Spitzer has identified areas of further study for our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2021. Webb will also explore the universe in infrared light, picking up where Spitzer eventually will leave off. With its enhanced ability to probe planetary atmospheres, Webb may reveal striking new details about exoplanets that Spitzer found. Distant galaxies unveiled by Spitzer together with other telescopes will also be observed in further detail by Webb. The space telescope we are planning after that, WFIRST, will also investigate long-standing mysteries by looking at infrared light. Scientists planning studies with future infrared telescopes will naturally build upon the pioneering legacy of Spitzer.

Read the web version of this week’s “Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: 

10 Things: Calling All Pluto Lovers

June 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Charon’s discovery—the dwarf planet Pluto’s largest and first known moon. While the definition of a planet is the subject of vigorous scientific debate, this dwarf planet is a fascinating world to explore. Get to know Pluto’s beautiful, fascinating companion this week.

1. A Happy Accident


Astronomers James Christy and Robert Harrington weren’t even looking for satellites of Pluto when they discovered Charon in June 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station in Arizona – only about six miles from where Pluto was discovered at Lowell Observatory. Instead, they were trying to refine Pluto’s orbit around the Sun when sharp-eyed Christy noticed images of Pluto were strangely elongated; a blob seemed to move around Pluto. 

The direction of elongation cycled back and forth over 6.39 days―the same as Pluto’s rotation period. Searching through their archives of Pluto images taken years before, Christy then found more cases where Pluto appeared elongated. Additional images confirmed he had discovered the first known moon of Pluto.

2. Forever and Always


Christy proposed the name Charon after the mythological ferryman who carried souls across the river Acheron, one of the five mythical rivers that surrounded Pluto’s underworld. But Christy also chose it for a more personal reason: The first four letters matched the name of his wife, Charlene. (Cue the collective sigh.)

3. Big Little Moon


Charon—the largest of Pluto’s five moons and approximately the size of Texas—is almost half the size of Pluto itself. The little moon is so big that Pluto and Charon are sometimes referred to as a double dwarf planet system. The distance between them is 12,200 miles (19,640 kilometers).

4. A Colorful and Violent History


Many scientists on the New Horizons mission expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they found a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more. High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator.

5. Grander Canyon


This great canyon system stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.

6. Officially Official


In April 2018, the International Astronomical Union—the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and their surface features—approved a dozen names for Charon’s features proposed by our New Horizons mission team. Many of the names focus on the literature and mythology of exploration.

7. Flying Over Charon

This flyover video of Charon was created thanks to images from our New Horizons spacecraft. The “flight” starts with the informally named Mordor (dark) region near Charon’s north pole. Then the camera moves south to a vast chasm, descending to just 40 miles (60 kilometers) above the surface to fly through the canyon system.

8. Strikingly Different Worlds


This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by New Horizons as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain.

9. Quality Facetime


Charon neither rises nor sets, but hovers over the same spot on Pluto’s surface, and the same side of Charon always faces Pluto―a phenomenon called mutual tidal locking.

10. Shine On, Charon


Bathed in “Plutoshine,” this image from New Horizons shows the night side of Charon against a star field lit by faint, reflected light from Pluto itself on July 15, 2015.

Read the full version of this week’s ‘10 Things to Know’ article on the web HERE.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

Pick Your Favorite Findings From Fermi’s First…

Here’s a few of our favorite Fermi discoveries, pick your favorite in the first round of our “Fermi Science Playoff.” The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has been observing some of the most extreme objects and events in the universe — from supermassive black holes to merging neutron stars and thunderstorms — for 10 years. Fermi studies the cosmos using gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, and has discovered thousands of new phenomena for scientists.

Colliding Neutron Stars


In 2017, Fermi detected a gamma ray burst at nearly the same moment ground observatories detected gravitational waves from two merging neutron stars. This was the first time light and ripples in space-time were detected from the same source.

The Sun and Moon in Gamma Rays


In 2016, Fermi showed the Moon is brighter in gamma rays than the Sun. Because the Moon doesn’t have a magnetic field, the surface is constantly pelted from all directions by cosmic rays. These produce gamma rays when they run into other particles, causing a full-Moon gamma-ray glow.

Record Rare from a Blazar


The supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy 3C 279 weighs a billion times the mass of our Sun. In June 2015, this blazar became the brightest gamma-ray source in the sky due to a record-setting flare.

The First Gamma-Ray Pulsar in Another Galaxy


In 2015, for the first time, Fermi discovered a gamma-ray pulsar, a kind of rapidly spinning superdense star, in a galaxy outside our own. The object, located on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula, also set the record for the most luminous gamma-ray pulsar we’ve seen so far.

A Gamma-Ray Cycle in Another Galaxy


Many galaxies, including our own, have black holes at their centers. In active galaxies, dust and gas fall into and “feed” the black hole, releasing light and heat. In 2015 for the first time, scientists using Fermi data found hints that a galaxy called PG 1553+113 has a years-long gamma-ray emission cycle. They’re not sure what causes this cycle, but one exciting possibility is that the galaxy has a second supermassive black hole that causes periodic changes in what the first is eating.

Gamma Rays from Novae


A nova is a fairly common, short-lived kind of explosion on the surface of a white dwarf, a type of compact star not much larger than Earth. In 2014, Fermi observed several novae and found that they almost always produce gamma-rays, giving scientists a new type of source to explore further with the telescope.

A Record-Setting Cosmic Blast


Gamma-ray bursts are the most luminous explosions in the universe. In 2013, Fermi spotted the brightest burst it’s seen so far in the constellation Leo. In the first three seconds alone, the burst, called GRB 130427A, was brighter than any other burst seen before it. This record has yet to be shattered.

Cosmic Rays from Supernova Leftovers


Cosmic rays are particles that travel across the cosmos at nearly the speed of light. They are hard to track back to their source because they veer off course every time they encounter a magnetic field. In 2013, Fermi showed that these particles reach their incredible speed in the shockwaves of supernova remains — a theory proposed in 1949 by the satellite’s namesake, the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi.

Discovery of a Transformer Pulsar


In 2013, the pulsar in a binary star system called AY Sextanis switched from radio emissions to high-energy gamma rays. Scientists think the change reflects erratic interaction between the two stars in the binary.

Gamma-Ray Measurement of a Gravitational Lens


A gravitational lens is a kind of natural cosmic telescope that occurs when a massive object in space bends and amplifies light from another, more distant object. In 2012, Fermi used gamma rays to observe a spiral galaxy 4.03 billion light-years away bending light coming from a source 4.35 billion light-years away.

New Limits on Dark Matter


We can directly observe only 20 percent of the matter in the universe. The rest is invisible to telescopes and is called dark matter — and we’re not quite sure what it is. In 2012, Fermi helped place new limits on the properties of dark matter, essentially narrowing the field of possible particles that can describe what dark matter is.

‘Superflares’ in the Crab Nebula


The Crab Nebula supernova remnant is one of the most-studied targets in the sky — we’ve been looking at it for almost a thousand years! In 2011, Fermi saw it erupt in a flare five times more powerful than any previously seen from the object. Scientists calculate the electrons in this eruption are 100 times more energetic than what we can achieve with particle accelerators on Earth.

Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space


Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes are created by thunderstorms. In 2011, Fermi scientists announced the satellite had detected beams of antimatter above thunderstorms, which they think are a byproduct of gamma-ray flashes.

Giant Gamma-Ray Bubbles in the Milky Way


Using data from Fermi in 2010, scientists discovered a pair of “bubbles” emerging from above and below the Milky Way. These enormous bubbles are half the length of the Milky Way and were probably created by our galaxy’s supermassive black hole only a few million years ago.

Hint of Starquakes in a Magnetar


Neutron stars have magnetic fields trillions of times stronger than Earth’s. Magnetars are neutron stars with magnetic fields 1,000 times stronger still. In 2009, Fermi saw a storm of gamma-ray bursts from a magnetar called SGR J1550-5418, which scientists think were related to seismic waves rippling across its surface.

A Dark Pulsar


We observe many pulsars using radio waves, visible light or X-rays. In 2008, Fermi found the first gamma-ray only pulsar in a supernova remnant called CTA 1. We think that the “beam” of gamma rays we see from CTA 1 is much wider than the beam of other types of light from that pulsar. Those other beams never sweep across our vision — only the gamma-rays.


Have a favorite Fermi discovery or want to learn more? Cast your vote in the first of four rounds of the Fermi Science Playoff to help rank Fermi’s findings. Or follow along as we celebrate the mission all year.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

Ten Observations From Our Flying Telescope


SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft with a 100-inch telescope used to study the solar system and beyond by observing infrared light that can’t reach Earth’s surface.


What is infrared light? It’s light we cannot see with our eyes that is just beyond the red portion of visible light we see in a rainbow. It can be used to change your TV channels, which is how remote controls work, and it can tell us how hot things are.


Everything emits infrared radiation, even really cold objects like ice and newly forming stars! We use infrared light to study the life cycle of stars, the area around black holes, and to analyze the chemical fingerprints of complex molecules in space and in the atmospheres of other planets – including Pluto and Mars.


Above, is the highest-resolution image of the ring of dust and clouds around the back hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The bright Y-shaped feature is believed to be material falling from the ring into the black hole – which is located where the arms of the Y intersect.


The magnetic field in the galaxy M82 (pictured above) aligns with the dramatic flow of material driven by a burst of star formation. This is helping us learn how star formation shapes magnetic fields of an entire galaxy.


A nearby planetary system around the star Epsilon Eridani, the location of the fictional Babylon 5 space station, is similar to our own: it’s the closest known planetary system around a star like our sun and it also has an asteroid belt adjacent to the orbit of its largest, Jupiter-sized planet.


Observations of a supernova that exploded 10,000 years ago, that revealed it contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earth-sized planets!


Measurements of Pluto’s upper atmosphere, made just two weeks before our New Horizons spacecraft’s Pluto flyby. Combining these observations with those from the spacecraft are helping us understand the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.


A gluttonous star that has eaten the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the last 80 years, which may change the theory of how stars and planets form.


Molecules like those in your burnt breakfast toast may offer clues to the building blocks of life. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like these is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.


This map of carbon molecules in Orion’s Horsehead nebula (overlaid on an image of the nebula from the Palomar Sky Survey) is helping us understand how the earliest generations of stars formed. Our instruments on SOFIA use 14 detectors simultaneously, letting us make this map faster than ever before!


Pinpointing the location of water vapor in a newly forming star with groundbreaking precision. This is expanding our understanding of the distribution of water in the universe and its eventual incorporation into planets. The water vapor data from SOFIA is shown above laid over an image from the Gemini Observatory.


We captured the chemical fingerprints that revealed celestial clouds collapsing to form young stars like our sun. It’s very rare to directly observe this collapse in motion because it happens so quickly. One of the places where the collapse was observed is shown in this image from The Two Micron All Sky Survey.

Learn more by following SOFIA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

What’s Made in a Thunderstorm and Faster Than …

A flash of lightning. A roll of thunder. These are normal stormy sights and sounds. But sometimes, up above the clouds, stranger things happen. Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has spotted bursts of gamma rays – some of the highest-energy forms of light in the universe – coming from thunderstorms. Gamma rays are usually found coming from objects with crazy extreme physics like neutron stars and black holes

So why is Fermi seeing them come from thunderstorms?


Thunderstorms form when warm, damp air near the ground starts to rise and encounters colder air. As the warm air rises, moisture condenses into water droplets. The upward-moving water droplets bump into downward-moving ice crystals, stripping off electrons and creating a static charge in the cloud.


The top of the storm becomes positively charged, and the bottom becomes negatively charged, like two ends of a battery. Eventually the opposite charges build enough to overcome the insulating properties of the surrounding air – and zap! You get lightning.


Scientists suspect that lightning reconfigures the cloud’s electrical field. In some cases this allows electrons to rush toward the upper part of the storm at nearly the speed of light. That makes thunderstorms the most powerful natural particle accelerators on Earth!


When those electrons run into air molecules, they emit a terrestrial gamma-ray flash, which means that thunderstorms are creating some of the highest energy forms of light in the universe. But that’s not all – thunderstorms can also produce antimatter! Yep, you read that correctly! Sometimes, a gamma ray will run into an atom and produce an electron and a positron, which is an electron’s antimatter opposite!


The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope can spot terrestrial gamma-ray flashes within 500 miles of the location directly below the spacecraft. It does this using an instrument called the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor which is primarily used to watch for spectacular flashes of gamma rays coming from the universe.


There are an estimated 1,800 thunderstorms occurring on Earth at any given moment. Over the 10 years that Fermi has been in space, it has spotted about 5,000 terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. But scientists estimate that there are 1,000 of these flashes every day – we’re just seeing the ones that are within 500 miles of Fermi’s regular orbits, which don’t cover the U.S. or Europe.

The map above shows all the flashes Fermi has seen since 2008. (Notice there’s a blob missing over the lower part of South America. That’s the South Atlantic Anomaly, a portion of the sky where radiation affects spacecraft and causes data glitches.)


Fermi has also spotted terrestrial gamma-ray flashes coming from individual tropical weather systems. The most productive system we’ve seen was Tropical Storm Julio in 2014, which later became a hurricane. It produced four flashes in just 100 minutes!


Learn more about what Fermi’s discovered about gamma rays over the last 10 years and how we’re celebrating its accomplishments.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Planets Outside Our Solar System

Let the planet-hunting begin!

Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will scan the skies to look for planets beyond our solar system—known as exoplanets—is now in Florida to begin preparations for launch in April. Below, 10 Things to know about the many, many unknown planets out there awaiting our discovery.


We call planets in our solar system, well, planets, but the many planets we’re starting to discover outside of our solar system are called exoplanets. Basically, they’re planets that orbit another star.

2All eyes on TRAPPIST-1.

Remember the major 2016 announcement that we had discovered seven planets 40 light-years away, orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1? Those are all exoplanets. (Here’s a refresher.)

3Add 95 new ones to that.

Just last month, our Kepler telescope discovered 95 new exoplanets beyond our solar system (on top of the thousands of exoplanets Kepler has discovered so far). The total known planet count beyond our solar system is now more than 3,700. The planets range in size from mostly rocky super-Earths and fluffy mini-Neptunes, to Jupiter-like giants. They include a new planet orbiting a very bright star—the brightest star ever discovered by Kepler to have a transiting planet.

4Here comes TESS.

How many more exoplanets are out there waiting to be discovered? TESS will monitor more than 200,000 of the nearest and brightest stars in search of transit events—periodic dips in a star’s brightness caused by planets passing in front—and is expected to find thousands of exoplanets.

5With a sidekick, too.

Our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, will provide important follow-up observations of some of the most promising TESS-discovered exoplanets. It will also allow scientists to study their atmospheres and, in some special cases, search for signs that these planets could support life.

6Prepped for launch.

TESS is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station nearby our Kennedy Space Center in Florida, no earlier than April 16, pending range approval.

7A groundbreaking find.

In 1995, 51 Pegasi b (also called “Dimidium”) was the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a star like our Sun. This find confirmed that planets like the ones in our solar system could exist elsewhere in the universe.

8Trillions await.

A recent statistical estimate places, on average, at least one planet around every star in the galaxy. That means there could be a trillion planets in our galaxy alone, many of them in the range of Earth’s size.

9Signs of life.

Of course, our ultimate science goal is to find unmistakable signs of current life. How soon can that happen? It depends on two unknowns: the prevalence of life in the galaxy and a bit of luck. Read more about the search for life.

10Want to explore the galaxy?

No need to be an astronaut. Take a trip outside our solar system with help from our Exoplanet Travel Bureau.

Read the full version of this week’s ‘10 Things to Know’ article HERE

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

What’s Inside SOFIA? High Flying Instruments


Our flying observatory, called SOFIA, carries a 100-inch telescope inside a Boeing 747SP aircraft. Having an airborne observatory provides many benefits.


It flies at 38,000-45,000 feet – above 99% of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere that blocks infrared light from reaching the ground! 


It is also mobile! We can fly to the best vantage point for viewing the cosmos. We go to Christchurch, New Zealand, nearly every year to study objects best observed from the Southern Hemisphere. And last year we went to Daytona Beach, FL, to study the atmosphere of Neptune’s moon Triton while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.


SOFIA’s telescope has a large primary mirror – about the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Large telescopes let us gather a lot of light to make high-resolution images!


But unlike a space-based observatory, SOFIA returns to our base every morning.


Which means that we can change the instruments we use to analyze the light from the telescope to make many different types of scientific observations. We currently have seven instruments, and new ones are now being developed to incorporate new technologies.

So what is inside SOFIA? The existing instruments include:


Infrared cameras that can peer inside celestial clouds of dust and gas to see stars forming inside. They can also study molecules in a nebula that may offer clues to the building blocks of life


…A polarimeter, a device that measures the alignment of incoming light waves, that we use to study magnetic fields. The left image reveals that hot dust in the starburst galaxy M82 is magnetically aligned with the gas flowing out of it, shown in blue on the right image from our Chandra X-ray Observatory. This can help us understand how magnetic fields affect how stars form.


…A tracking camera that we used to study New Horizon’s post-Pluto flyby target and found that it may have its own moon


…A spectrograph that spreads light into its component colors. We’re using one to search for signs of water plumes on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and to search for signs of water on Venus to learn about how it lost its oceans


…An instrument that studies high energy terahertz radiation with 14 detectors. It’s so efficient that we made this map of Orion’s Horsehead Nebula in only four hours! The map is made of 100 separate views of the nebula, each mapping carbon atoms at different velocities.


…And we have an instrument under construction that will soon let us study how water vapor, ice and oxygen combine at different times during planet formation, to better understand how these elements combine with dust to form a mass that can become a planet.


Our airborne telescope has already revealed so much about the universe around us! Now we’re looking for the next idea to help us use SOFIA in even more new ways. 

Discover more about our SOFIA flying observatory HERE

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

The Universe’s Brightest Lights Have Some Dark…

Did you know some of the brightest sources of light in the sky come from black holes in the centers of galaxies? It sounds a little contradictory, but it’s true! They may not look bright to our eyes, but satellites have spotted oodles of them across the universe. 

One of those satellites is our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Fermi has found thousands of these kinds of galaxies in the 10 years it’s been operating, and there are many more out there!


Black holes are regions of space that have so much gravity that nothing – not light, not particles, nada – can escape. Most galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers – these are black holes that are hundreds of thousands to billions of times the mass of our sun – but active galactic nuclei (also called “AGN” for short, or just “active galaxies”) are surrounded by gas and dust that’s constantly falling into the black hole. As the gas and dust fall, they start to spin and form a disk. Because of the friction and other forces at work, the spinning disk starts to heat up.


The disk’s heat gets emitted as light – but not just wavelengths of it that we can see with our eyes. We see light from AGN across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from the more familiar radio and optical waves through to the more exotic X-rays and gamma rays, which we need special telescopes to spot.


About one in 10 AGN beam out jets of energetic particles, which are traveling almost as fast as light. Scientists are studying these jets to try to understand how black holes – which pull everything in with their huge amounts of gravity – somehow provide the energy needed to propel the particles in these jets.

Many of the ways we tell one type of AGN from another depend on how they’re oriented from our point of view. With radio galaxies, for example, we see the jets from the side as they’re beaming vast amounts of energy into space. Then there’s blazars, which are a type of AGN that have a jet that is pointed almost directly at Earth, which makes the AGN particularly bright.  


Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has been searching the sky for gamma ray sources for 10 years. More than half (57%) of the sources it has found have been blazars. Gamma rays are useful because they can tell us a lot about how particles accelerate and how they interact with their environment.


So why do we care about AGN? We know that some AGN formed early in the history of the universe. With their enormous power, they almost certainly affected how the universe changed over time. By discovering how AGN work, we can understand better how the universe came to be the way it is now.


Fermi’s helped us learn a lot about the gamma-ray universe over the last 10 years. Learn more about Fermi and how we’re celebrating its accomplishments all year.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: