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.
2—All 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.)
3—Add 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.
4—Here 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.
5—With a sidekick, too.
Ourupcoming 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.
6—Prepped 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.
7—A 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.
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.
9—Signs 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.
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:
…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.
…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.
“The first TV image of Mars, hand colored strip-by-strip, from Mariner 4 in 1965. The completed image was framed and presented to JPL director, William H. Pickering. Truly a labor of love for science!” -Kristen Erickson, NASA Science Engagement and Partnerships Director
“There are so many stories to this image. It is a global image, but relates to an individual in one glance. There are stories on social, economic, population, energy, pollution, human migration, technology meets science, enable global information, etc., that we can all communicate with similar interests under one image.” -Winnie Humberson, NASA Earth Science Outreach Manager
“Whenever I see this picture, I wonder…if another species saw this blue dot what would they say and would they want to discover what goes on there…which is both good and bad. However, it would not make a difference within the eternity of space—we’re so insignificant…in essence just dust in the galactic wind—one day gone forever.”
-Dwayne Brown, NASA Senior Communications Official
“I observed the Galactic Center with several X-ray telescopes before Chandra, including the Einstein Observatory and ROSAT. But the Chandra image looks nothing like those earlier images, and it reminded me how complex the universe really is. Also I love the colors.” -Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division
“This image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the Moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth in 2015. It shows a view of the farside of the Moon, which faces the Sun, that is never directly visible to us here on Earth. I found this perspective profoundly moving and only through our satellite views could this have been shared.” -Michael Freilich, Director NASA Earth Science Division
“Pluto was so unlike anything I could imagine based on my knowledge of the Solar System. It showed me how much about the outer solar system we didn’t know. Truly shocking, exciting and wonderful all at the same time.” -Jim Green, Director, NASA Planetary Science Division
“This high-resolution, false color image of Pluto is my favorite. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 capped humanity’s initial reconnaissance of every major body in the solar system. To think that all of this happened within our lifetime! It’s a reminder of how privileged we are to be alive and working at NASA during this historic era of space exploration.” – Laurie Cantillo, NASA Planetary Science Public Affairs Officer
“The Solar System family portrait, because it is a symbol what NASA exploration is really about: Seeing our world in a new and bigger way.” – Thomas H. Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate
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.
Someone’s got to be first. In space, the first explorers beyond Mars were Pioneers 10 and 11, twin robots who charted the course to the cosmos.
Voyager, with its outer solar system tour and interstellar observations, is often credited as the greatest robotic space mission. But today we remember the plucky Pioneers, the spacecraft that proved Voyager’s epic mission was possible.
2-Where No One Had Gone Before
Forty-five years ago this week, scientists still weren’t sure how hard it would be to navigate the main asteroid belt, a massive field of rocky debris between Mars and Jupiter. Pioneer 10 helped them work that out, emerging from first the first six-month crossing in February 1973. Pioneer 10 logged a few meteoroid hits (fewer than expected) and taught engineers new tricks for navigating farther and farther beyond Earth.
3-Trailblazer No. 2
Pioneer 11 was a backup spacecraft launched in 1973 after Pioneer 10 cleared the asteroid belt. The new mission provided a second close look at Jupiter, the first close-up views of Saturn and also gave Voyager engineers plotting an epic multi-planet tour of the outer planets a chance to practice the art of interplanetary navigation.
4-First to Jupiter
Three-hundred and sixty-three years after humankind first looked at Jupiter through a telescope, Pioneer 10 became the first human-made visitor to the Jovian system in December 1973. The spacecraft spacecraft snapped about 300 photos during a flyby that brought it within 81,000 miles (about 130,000 kilometers) of the giant planet’s cloud tops.
Pioneer began as a Moon program in the 1950s and evolved into increasingly more complicated spacecraft, including a Pioneer Venus mission that delivered a series of probes to explore deep into the mysterious toxic clouds of Venus. A family portrait (above) showing (from left to right) Pioneers 6-9, 10 and 11 and the Pioneer Venus Orbiter and Multiprobe series. Image date: March 11, 1982.
6-A Pioneer and a Pioneer
Classic rock has Van Halen, we have Van Allen. With credits from Explorer 1 to Pioneer 11, James Van Allen was a rock star in the emerging world of planetary exploration. Van Allen (1914-2006) is credited with the first scientific discovery in outer space and was a fixture in the Pioneer program. Van Allen was a key part of the team from the early attempts to explore the Moon (he’s pictured here with Pioneer 4) to the more evolved science platforms aboard Pioneers 10 and 11.
7-The Farthest…For a While
For more than 25 years, Pioneer 10 was the most distant human-made object, breaking records by crossing the asteroid belt, the orbit of Jupiter and eventually even the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1, moving even faster, claimed the most distant title in February 1998 and still holds that crown.
We last heard from Pioneer 10 on Jan. 23, 2003. Engineers felt its power source was depleted and no further contact should be expected. We tried again in 2006, but had no luck. The last transmission from Pioneer 11 was received in September 1995. Both missions were planned to last about two years.
9-Galactic Ghost Ships
Pioneers 10 and 11 are two of five spacecraft with sufficient velocity to escape our solar system and travel into interstellar space. The other three—Voyagers 1 and 2 and New Horizons—are still actively talking to Earth. The twin Pioneers are now silent. Pioneer 10 is heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). It will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it. Pioneer 11 is headed toward the constellation of Aquila (The Eagle) and will pass nearby in about 4 million years.
10-The Original Message to the Cosmos
Years before Voyager’s famed Golden Record, Pioneers 10 and 11 carried the original message from Earth to the cosmos. Like Voyager’s record, the Pioneer plaque was the brainchild of Carl Sagan who wanted any alien civilization who might encounter the craft to know who made it and how to contact them. The plaques give our location in the galaxy and depicts a man and woman drawn in relation to the spacecraft.
Read the full version of this week’s 10 Things article HERE.
When galaxies collide — a common event in the
universe — a fresh burst of star formation typically takes place as gas clouds
mash together. At this point, the galaxy has a blue hue, but the color does not
mean it is cold: it is a result of the intense heat of newly formed blue–white
stars. Those stars do not last long, and after a few billion years the reddish
hues of aging, smaller stars dominate an elliptical galaxy’s spectrum.
Our Hubble Space Telescope (@NASAHubble) caught
sight of a soft, diffuse-looking galaxy, perhaps the aftermath of a long-ago
galactic collision when two spiral galaxies, each perhaps much like the Milky
Way, swirled together for millions of years.
In such mergers, the original galaxies are often
stretched and pulled apart as they wrap around a common center of gravity.
After a few back-and-forths, this starry tempest settles down into a new, round
object. The now subdued celestial body is technically known as an elliptical
We’re always making amazing discoveries about the farthest reaches of our universe, but there’s also plenty of unexplored territory much closer to home.
Our “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9” is a citizen science project that asks curious people like you — yes, you there! — to help us spot objects in the area around our own solar system like brown dwarfs. You could even help us figure out if our solar system hosts a mysterious Planet 9!
You’ll figure out how to tell the difference between real objects, like planets and stars, and artifacts. Artifacts are blurry blobs of light that got scattered around in WISE’s instruments while it was looking at the sky. These “optical ghosts” sometimes look like real objects.
Why can’t we use computers to do this, you ask? Well, computers are good at lots of things, like crunching numbers. But when it comes to recognizing when something’s a ghostly artifact and when it’s a real object, humans beat software all the time. After some practice, you’ll be able to recognize which objects are real and which aren’t just by watching them move!
One of the things our citizen scientists look for are brown dwarfs, which are balls of gas too big to be planets and too small to be stars. These objects are some of our nearest neighbors, and scientists think there’s probably a bunch of them floating around nearby, we just haven’t been able to find all of them yet.
Image Credit: Ryan Trainor, Franklin and Marshall College
How do we know for sure that we’ve spotted actual, bona fide, authentic brown dwarfs? Well, like with any discovery in science, we followed up with more observation. Our team gets time on ground-based observatories like the InfraRed Telescope Facility in Hawaii, the Magellan Telescope in Chile (pictured above) and the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and takes a closer look at our candidates. And sure enough, our participants found 17 brown dwarfs!
But we’re not done! There’s still lots of data to go through. In particular, we want your help looking for a potential addition to our solar system’s census: Planet 9. Some scientists think it’s circling somewhere out there past Pluto. No one has seen anything yet, but it could be you! Or drop by and contribute to our other citizen science projects like Disk Detective.
Congratulations to the citizen scientists who spotted these 17 brown dwarfs: Dan Caselden, Rosa Castro, Guillaume Colin, Sam Deen, Bob Fletcher, Sam Goodman, Les Hamlet, Khasan Mokaev, Jörg Schümann and Tamara Stajic.
Why was James Webb Space Telescope designed to observe infrared light? How can its images hope to compare to those taken by the (primarily) visible-light Hubble Space Telescope? The short answer is that Webb will absolutely capture beautiful images of the universe, even if it won’t see exactly what Hubble sees. (Spoiler: It will see a lot of things even better.)
The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2019. 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.
What is infrared light?
This may surprise you, but your remote control uses light waves just beyond the visible spectrum of light—infrared light waves—to change channels on your TV.
Infrared light shows us how hot things are. It can also show us how cold things are. But it all has to do with heat. Since the primary source of infrared radiation is heat or thermal radiation, any object that has a temperature radiates in the infrared. Even objects that we think of as being very cold, such as an ice cube, emit infrared.
There are legitimate scientific reasons for Webb to be an infrared telescope. There are things we want to know more about, and we need an infrared telescope to learn about them. Things like: stars and planets being born inside clouds of dust and gas; the very first stars and galaxies, which are so far away the light they emit has been stretched into the infrared; and the chemical fingerprints of elements and molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are only seen in the infrared.
In a star-forming region of space called the ‘Pillars of Creation,’ this is what we see with visible light:
Infrared light can pierce through obscuring dust and gas and unveil a more unfamiliar view.
Webb will see some visible light: red and orange. But the truth is that even though Webb sees mostly infrared light, it will still take beautiful images. The beauty and quality of an astronomical image depends on two things: the sharpness of the image 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. Webb will take much sharper images than Hubble at infrared wavelengths, and Hubble has comparable resolution at the visible wavelengths that Webb can see.
Webb’s infrared data can be translated by computer into something our eyes can appreciate – in fact, this is what we do with Hubble data. The gorgeous images we see from Hubble don’t pop out of the telescope looking fully formed. To maximize the resolution of the images, Hubble takes multiple exposures through different color filters on its cameras.
The separate exposures, which look black and white, are assembled into a true color picture via image processing. Full color is important to image analysis of celestial objects. It can be used to highlight the glow of various elements in a nebula, or different stellar populations in a galaxy. It can also highlight interesting features of the object that might be overlooked in a black and white exposure, and so the images not only look beautiful but also contain a lot of useful scientific information about the structure, temperatures, and chemical makeup of a celestial object.
This image shows the sequences in the production of a Hubble image of nebula Messier 17:
Here’s another compelling argument for having telescopes that view the universe outside the spectrum of visible light – not everything in the universe emits visible light. There are many phenomena which can only be seen at certain wavelengths of light, for example, in the X-ray part of the spectrum, or in the ultraviolet. When we combine images taken at different wavelengths of light, we can get a better understanding of an object, because each wavelength can show us a different feature or facet of it.
Just like infrared data can be made into something meaningful to human eyes, so can each of the other wavelengths of light, even X-rays and gamma-rays.
Below is an image of the M82 galaxy created using X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and visible light data from Hubble. Also note how aesthetically pleasing the image is despite it not being just optical light:
Though Hubble sees primarily visible light, it can see some infrared. And despite not being optimized for it, and being much less powerful than Webb, it still produced this stunning image of the Horsehead Nebula.
It’s a big universe out there – more than our eyes can see. But with all the telescopes now at our disposal (as well as the new ones that will be coming online in the future), we are slowly building a more accurate picture. And it’s definitely a beautiful one. Just take a look…
…At this Spitzer infrared image of a shock wave in dust around the star Zeta Ophiuchi.
…this Spitzer image of the Helix Nebula, created using infrared data from the telescope and ultraviolet data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer.
…this image of the “wing” of the Small Magellanic Cloud, created with infrared data from Spitzer and X-ray data from Chandra.
…the below image of the Milky Way’s galactic center, taken with our flying SOFIA telescope. It flies at more than 40,000 feet, putting it above 99% of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere– critical for observing infrared because water vapor blocks infrared light from reaching the ground. This infrared view reveals the ring of gas and dust around a supermassive black hole that can’t be seen with visible light.
…and this Hubble image of the Mystic Mountains in the Carina Nebula.
Image Credits Eagle Nebula: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team Hubble Image Processing – Messier 17: NASA/STScI Galaxy M82 Composite Image: NASA, CXC, JHU, D.Strickland, JPL-Caltech, C. Engelbracht (University of Arizona), ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Horsehead Nebula: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Zeta Ophiuchi: NASA/JPL-Caltech Helix Nebula: NASA/JPL-Caltech Wing of the Small Magellanic Cloud X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech Milky Way Circumnuclear Ring: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/FORCAST Team/ Lau et al. 2013 Mystic Mountains in the Carina Nebula: NASA/ESA/M. Livio & Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)
The James Webb Space Telescope’s gold-plated, beryllium mirrors are beautiful feats of engineering. From the 18 hexagonal primary mirror segments, to the perfectly circular secondary mirror, and even the slightly trapezoidal tertiary mirror and the intricate fine-steering mirror, each reflector went through a rigorous refinement process before it was ready to mount on the telescope. This flawless formation process was critical for Webb, which will use the mirrors to peer far back in time to capture the light from the first stars and galaxies.
The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2019. 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.
A polish and shine that would make your car jealous
All of the Webb telescope’s mirrors were polished to accuracies of approximately one millionth of an inch. The beryllium mirrors were polished at room temperature with slight imperfections, so as they change shape ever so slightly while cooling to their operating temperatures in space, they achieve their perfect shape for operations.
The Midas touch
Engineers used a process called vacuum vapor deposition to coat Webb’s mirrors with an ultra-thin layer of gold. Each mirror only required about 3 grams (about 0.11 ounces) of gold. It only took about a golf ball-sized amount of gold to paint the entire main mirror!
Before the deposition process began, engineers had to be absolutely sure the mirror surfaces were free from contaminants.
The engineers thoroughly wiped down each mirror, then checked it in low light conditions to ensure there was no residue on the surface.
Inside the vacuum deposition chamber, the tiny amount of gold is turned into a vapor and deposited to cover the entire surface of each mirror.
Primary, secondary, and tertiary mirrors, oh my!
Each of Webb’s primary mirror segments is hexagonally shaped. The entire 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) primary mirror is slightly curved (concave), so each approximately 1.3-meter (4.3-foot) piece has a slight curve to it.
Those curves repeat themselves among the segments, so there are only three different shapes — 6 of each type. In the image below, those different shapes are labeled as A, B, and C.
Webb’s perfectly circular secondary mirror captures light from the 18 primary mirror segments and relays those images to the telescope’s tertiary mirror.
The secondary mirror is convex, so the reflective surface bulges toward a light source. It looks much like a curved mirror that you see on the wall near the exit of a parking garage that lets motorists see around a corner.
Webb’s trapezoidal tertiary mirror captures light from the secondary mirror and relays it to the fine-steering mirror and science instruments. The tertiary mirror sits at the center of the telescope’s primary mirror. The tertiary mirror is the only fixed mirror in the system — all of the other mirrors align to it.
All of the mirrors working together will provide Webb with the most advanced infrared vision of any space observatory we’ve ever launched!
Who is the fairest of them all?
The beauty of Webb’s primary mirror was apparent as it rotated past a cleanroom observation window at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. If you look closely in the reflection, you will see none other than James Webb Space Telescope senior project scientist and Nobel Laureate John Mather!
Black holes, cosmic rays, neutron stars and even new kinds of physics — for 10 years, data from our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have helped unravel some of the biggest mysteries of the cosmos. And Fermi is far from finished!
On June 11, 2008, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the countdown started for Fermi, which was called the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) at the time.
The telescope was renamed after launch to honor Enrico Fermi, an Italian-American pioneer in high-energy physics who also helped develop the first nuclear reactor.
The Fermi telescope measures some of the highest energy bursts of light in the universe; watching the sky to help scientists answer all sorts of questions about some of the most powerful objects in the universe.
Its main instrument is the Large Area Telescope (LAT), which can view 20% of the sky at a time and makes a new image of the whole gamma-ray sky every three hours. Fermi’s other instrument is the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor. It sees even more of the sky at lower energies and is designed to detect brief flashes of gamma-rays from the cosmos and Earth.
This sky map below is from 2013 and shows all of the high energy gamma rays observed by the LAT during Fermi’s first five years in space. The bright glowing band along the map’s center is our own Milky Way galaxy!
So what are gamma rays?
Well, they’re a form of light. But light with so much energy and with such short wavelengths that we can’t see them with the naked eye. Gamma rays require a ton of energy to produce — from things like subatomic particles (such as protons) smashing into each other.
Here on Earth, you can get them in nuclear reactors and lightning strikes. Here’s a glimpse of the Seattle skyline if you could pop on a pair of gamma-ray goggles. That purple streak? That’s still the Milky Way, which is consistently the brightest source of gamma rays in our sky.
In space, you find that kind of energy in places like black holes and neutron stars. The raindrop-looking animation below shows a big flare of gamma rays that Fermi spotted coming from something called a blazar, which is a kind of quasar, which is different from a pulsar… actually, let’s back this up a little bit.
One of the sources of gamma rays that Fermi spots are pulsars. Pulsars are a kind of neutron star, which is a kind of star that used to be a lot bigger, but collapsed into something that’s smaller and a lot denser. Pulsars send out beams of gamma rays. But the thing about pulsars is that they rotate.
So Fermi only sees a beam of gamma rays from a pulsar when it’s pointed towards Earth. Kind of like how you only periodically see the beam from a lighthouse. These flashes of light are very regular. You could almost set your watch by them!
Quasars are supermassive black holes surrounded by disks of gas. As the gas falls into the black hole, it releases massive amount of energy, including — you guessed it — gamma rays. Blazars are quasars that send out beams of gamma rays and other forms of light — right in our direction.
When Fermi sees them, it’s basically looking straight down this tunnel of light, almost all the way back to the black hole. This means we can learn about the kinds of conditions in that environment when the rays were emitted. Fermi has found about 5,500 individual sources of gamma rays, and the bulk of them have been blazars, which is pretty nifty.
But gamma rays also have many other sources. We’ve seen them coming from supernovas where stars die and from star factories where stars are born. They’re created in lightning storms here on Earth, and our own Sun can toss them out in solar flares.
Fermi has been looking at the sky for almost 10 years now, and it’s helped scientists advance our understanding of the universe in many ways. And the longer it looks, the more we’ll learn. Discover more about how we’ll be celebrating Fermi’s achievements all year.