Category: universe

Solar System 10 Things: Looking Back at Pluto

In July 2015, we saw Pluto up close for the first time and—after three years of intense study—the surprises keep coming. “It’s clear,” says Jeffery Moore, New Horizons’ geology team lead, “Pluto is one of the most amazing and complex objects in our solar system.”

1. An Improving View


These are combined observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. More frames show of Pluto as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto taken by our New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.

2. The Heart


Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors are enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). Zoom in on the full resolution image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.

3. The Smiles


July 14, 2015: New Horizons team members Cristina Dalle Ore, Alissa Earle and Rick Binzel react to seeing the spacecraft’s last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach.

4. Majestic Mountains

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide.

5. Icy Dunes


Found near the mountains that encircle Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia plain, newly discovered ridges appear to have formed out of particles of methane ice as small as grains of sand, arranged into dunes by wind from the nearby mountains.

6. Glacial Plains


The vast nitrogen ice plains of Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia – the western half of Pluto’s “heart”—continue to give up secrets. Scientists processed images of Sputnik Planitia to bring out intricate, never-before-seen patterns in the surface textures of these glacial plains.

7. Colorful and Violent Charon


High resolution images of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, show a surprisingly complex and violent history. Scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they found a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.

8. Ice Volcanoes


One of two potential cryovolcanoes spotted on the surface of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft. This feature, known as Wright Mons, was informally named by the New Horizons team in honor of the Wright brothers. At about 90 miles (150 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high, this feature is enormous. If it is in fact an ice volcano, as suspected, it would be the largest such feature discovered in the outer solar system.

9. Blue Rays

Pluto’s receding crescent as seen by New Horizons at a distance of 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). Scientists believe the spectacular blue haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere. These hydrocarbons accumulate into small haze particles, which scatter blue sunlight—the same process that can make haze appear bluish on Earth.

10. Encore


On Jan. 1, 2019, New Horizons will fly past a small Kuiper Belt Object named MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule)—a billion miles (1.5 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto and more than four billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth. It will be the most distant encounter of an object in history—so far—and the second time New Horizons has revealed never-before-seen landscapes.

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

10 Frequently Asked Questions About the James …

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

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


1. What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

3. Why is Webb an infrared telescope?

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


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

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

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

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


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

5. What will Webb’s first targets be?

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


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

6. How does Webb compare with Hubble?

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

9. How far back will Webb see? 


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Solar System 10 Things: Two Years of Juno at J…

Our Juno mission arrived at the King of Planets in July 2016. The intrepid robotic explorer has been revealing Jupiter’s secrets ever since. 

Here are 10 historic Juno mission highlights:


1. Arrival at a Colossus

After an odyssey of almost five years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), our Juno spacecraft fired its main engine to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Juno, with its suite of nine science instruments, was the first spacecraft to orbit the giant planet since the Galileo mission in the 1990s. It would be the first mission to make repeated excursions close to the cloud tops, deep inside the planet’s powerful radiation belts.


2. Science, Meet Art

Juno carries a color camera called JunoCam. In a remarkable first for a deep space mission, the Juno team reached out to the general public not only to help plan which pictures JunoCam would take, but also to process and enhance the resulting visual data. The results include some of the most beautiful images in the history of space exploration.


3. A Whole New Jupiter

It didn’t take long for Juno—and the science teams who hungrily consumed the data it sent home—to turn theories about how Jupiter works inside out. Among the early findings: Jupiter’s poles are covered in Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together. Jupiter’s iconic belts and zones were surprising, with the belt near the equator penetrating far beneath the clouds, and the belts and zones at other latitudes seeming to evolve to other structures below the surface.

4. The Ultimate Classroom

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) project, a collaboration among NASA, JPL and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, lets students do real science with a large radio telescope. GAVRT data includes Jupiter observations relevant to Juno, and Juno scientists collaborate with the students and their teachers.


5. Spotting the Spot

Measuring in at 10,159 miles (16,350 kilometers) in width (as of April 3, 2017) Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is 1.3 times as wide as Earth. The storm has been monitored since 1830 and has possibly existed for more than 350 years. In modern times, the Great Red Spot has appeared to be shrinking. In July 2017, Juno passed directly over the spot, and JunoCam images revealed a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.

“For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.”


6. Beauty Runs Deep

Data collected by the Juno spacecraft during its first pass over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in July 2017 indicate that this iconic feature penetrates well below the clouds. The solar system’s most famous storm appears to have roots that penetrate about 200 miles (300 kilometers) into the planet’s atmosphere.


7. Powerful Auroras, Powerful Mysteries

Scientists on the Juno mission observed massive amounts of energy swirling over Jupiter’s polar regions that contribute to the giant planet’s powerful auroras – only not in ways the researchers expected. Examining data collected by the ultraviolet spectrograph and energetic-particle detector instruments aboard Juno, scientists observed signatures of powerful electric potentials, aligned with Jupiter’s magnetic field, that accelerate electrons toward the Jovian atmosphere at energies up to 400,000 electron volts. This is 10 to 30 times higher than the largest such auroral potentials observed at Earth. 

Jupiter has the most powerful auroras in the solar system, so the team was not surprised that electric potentials play a role in their generation. What puzzled the researchers is that despite the magnitudes of these potentials at Jupiter, they are observed only sometimes and are not the source of the most intense auroras, as they are at Earth.

8. Heat from Within

Juno scientists shared a 3D infrared movie depicting densely packed cyclones and anticyclones that permeate the planet’s polar regions, and the first detailed view of a dynamo, or engine, powering the magnetic field for any planet beyond Earth (video above). Juno mission scientists took data collected by the spacecraft’s Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument and generated a 3D fly-around of the Jovian world’s north pole. 

Imaging in the infrared part of the spectrum, JIRAM captures light emerging from deep inside Jupiter equally well, night or day. The instrument probes the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 kilometers) below Jupiter’s cloud tops.


9. A Highly Charged Atmosphere

Powerful bolts of lightning light up Jupiter’s clouds. In some ways its lightning is just like what we’re used to on Earth. In other ways,it’s very different. For example, most of Earth’s lightning strikes near the equator; on Jupiter, it’s mostly around the poles.


10. Extra Innings

In June, we approved an update to Juno’s science operations until July 2021. This provides for an additional 41 months in orbit around. Juno is in 53-day orbits rather than 14-day orbits as initially planned because of a concern about valves on the spacecraft’s fuel system. This longer orbit means that it will take more time to collect the needed science data, but an independent panel of experts confirmed that Juno is on track to achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results. The spacecraft and all its instruments are healthy and operating nominally. ​

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

For regular updates, follow NASA Solar System on Twitter and Facebook

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

10 Things: Mars Helicopter

When our next Mars rover lands on the Red Planet in
2021, it will deliver a groundbreaking technology demonstration: the
first helicopter to ever fly on a planetary body other than Earth. This
Mars Helicopter will demonstrate the first controlled, powered,
sustained flight on another world. It could also pave the way for future
missions that guide rovers and gather science data and images at
locations previously inaccessible on Mars. This exciting new technology
could change the way we explore Mars.


1. Its body is small, but its blades are mighty.

One of the biggest engineering challenges is getting the
Mars Helicopter’s blades just right. They need to push enough air
downward to receive an upward force that allows for thrust and
controlled flight — a big concern on a planet where the atmosphere is
only one percent as dense as Earth’s. “No helicopter has flown in those
flight conditions – equivalent to 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) on
Earth,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the project at our Jet
Propulsion Laboratory.


2. It has to fly in really thin Martian air.

To compensate for Mars’ thin atmosphere, the blades must
spin much faster than on an Earth helicopter, and the blade size
relative to the weight of the helicopter has to be larger too. The Mars
Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to
tip. At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster
than an Earth helicopter.

At the same time, the blades shouldn’t flap around too much, as
the helicopter’s design team discovered during testing. Their solution:
make the blades more rigid. “Our blades are much stiffer than any
terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be,” Balaram said.  

The body, meanwhile, is tiny — about the size of a softball. In
total, the helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).


3. It will make up to five flights on Mars.

Over a 30-day period on Mars, the helicopter will attempt
up to five flights, each time going farther than the last. The
helicopter will fly up to 90 seconds at a time, at heights of up to 10
to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters). Engineers will learn a lot about flying a
helicopter on Mars with each flight, since it’s never been done before!


4. The Mars Helicopter team has already completed groundbreaking tests.

Because a helicopter has never visited Mars before, the
Mars Helicopter team has worked hard to figure out how to predict the
helicopter’s performance on the Red Planet. “We had to invent how to do
planetary helicopter testing on Earth,” said Joe Melko, deputy chief
engineer of Mars Helicopter, based at JPL.

The team, led by JPL and including members from JPL,
AeroVironment Inc.,  Ames Research Center, and Langley Research
Center, has designed, built and tested a series of test vehicles.

In 2016, the team flew a full-scale prototype test model
of the helicopter in the 25-foot (7.6-meter) space simulator at JPL. The
chamber simulated the low pressure of the Martian atmosphere. More
recently, in 2018, the team built a fully autonomous helicopter designed
to operate on Mars, and successfully flew it in the 25-foot chamber in
Mars-like atmospheric density.

Engineers have also exercised the rotors of a test
helicopter in a cold chamber to simulate the low temperatures of Mars at
night. In addition, they have taken design steps to deal with Mars-like
radiation conditions. They have also tested the helicopter’s landing
gear on Mars-like terrain. More tests are coming to see how it performs
with Mars-like winds and other conditions.


5. The camera is as good as your cell phone camera.

The helicopter’s first priority is successfully flying on
Mars, so engineering information takes priority. An added bonus is its
camera. The Mars Helicopter has the ability to take color photos with a
13-megapixel camera — the same type commonly found in smart phones
today. Engineers will attempt to take plenty of good pictures.

6. It’s battery-powered, but the battery is rechargeable.

The helicopter requires 360 watts of power for each
second it hovers in the Martian atmosphere – equivalent to the power
required by six regular lightbulbs. But it isn’t out of luck when its
lithium-ion batteries run dry. A solar array on the helicopter will
recharge the batteries, making it a self-sufficient system as long as
there is adequate sunlight. Most of the energy will be used to keep the
helicopter warm, since nighttime temperatures on Mars plummet to around
minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 Celsius). During daytime flights,
temperatures may rise to a much warmer minus 13 to minus 58 degrees
Fahrenheit to (minus 25 to minus 50 degrees Celsius) — still chilly by
Earth standards. The solar panel makes an average of 3 watts of power
continuously during a 12-hour Martian day.

7. The helicopter will be carried to Mars under the belly of the rover.

Somewhere between 60 to 90 Martian days (or sols) after
the Mars 2020 rover lands, the helicopter will be deployed from the
underside of the rover. Mars Helicopter Delivery System on the rover
will rotate the helicopter down from the rover and release it onto the
ground. The rover will then drive away to a safe distance.


8. The helicopter will talk to the rover.

The Mars 2020 rover will act as a telecommunication
relay, receiving commands from engineers back on Earth and relaying them
to the helicopter. The helicopter will then send images and information
about its own performance to the rover, which will send them back to
Earth. The rover will also take measurements of wind and atmospheric
data to help flight controllers on Earth.

9. It has to fly by itself, with some help.

Radio signals take time to travel to Mars — between four
and 21 minutes, depending on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits —
so instantaneous communication with the helicopter will be impossible.
That means flight controllers can’t use a joystick to fly it in real
time, like a video game. Instead, they need to send commands to the
helicopter in advance, and the little flying robot will follow through.
Autonomous systems will allow the helicopter to look at the ground,
analyze the terrain to look how fast it’s moving, and land on its own.

10. It could pave the way for future missions.

A future Mars helicopter could scout points of interest,
help scientists and engineers select new locations and plan driving
routes for a rover. Larger standalone helicopters could carry science
payloads to investigate multiple sites at Mars. Future helicopters could
also be used to fly to places on Mars that rovers cannot reach, such as
cliffs or walls of craters. They could even assist with human
exploration one day. Says Balaram: “Someday, if we send astronauts,
these could be the eyes of the astronauts across Mars.”

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:

10 Things to Know: Massive Dust Storm on Mars

Massive Martian dust storms have been challenging—and enticing—scientists for decades. Here’s the scoop on Martian dust:


1: Challenging Opportunity

Our Opportunity rover is facing one of the greatest challenges of its 14 ½ year mission on the surface of Mars–a massive dust storm that has turned day to night. Opportunity is currently hunkered down on Mars near the center of a storm bigger than North America and Russia combined. The dust-induced darkness means the solar-powered rover can’t recharge its batteries.


2: One Tough Robot

This isn’t the first time Opportunity has had to wait out a massive storm. In 2007, a monthlong series of severe storms filled the Martian skies with dust. Power levels reached critical lows, but engineers nursed the rover back to health when sunlight returned.


3: Windswept

Martian breezes proved a saving grace for the solar-powered Mars rovers in the past, sweeping away accumulated dust and enabling rovers to recharge and get back to science. This is Opportunity in 2014. The image on the left is from January 2014. The image on the right in March 2014.


4: Dusty Disappointment

Back in 1971, scientists were eager for their first orbital views of Mars. But when Mariner 9 arrived in orbit, the Red Planet was engulfed by a global dust storm that hid most of the surface for a month. When the dust settled, geologists got detailed views of the Martian surface, including the first glimpses of ancient riverbeds carved into the dry and dusty landscape.


5: Dramatic License

As bad as the massive storm sounds, Mars isn’t capable of generating the strong winds that stranded actor Matt Damon’s character on the Red Planet in the movie The Martian. Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and winds are more breezy than brutal. The chore of cleaning dusty solar panels to maintain power levels, however, could be a very real job for future human explorers.


6: Semi-Regular Visitors

Scientists know to expect big dust storms on Mars, but the rapid development of the current one is surprising. Decades of Mars observations show a pattern of regional dust storms arising in northern spring and summer. In most Martian years, nearly twice as long as Earth years, the storms dissipate. But we’ve seen global dust storms in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. The current storm season could last into 2019.


7: Science in the Dust

Dust is hard on machines, but can be a boon to science. A study of the 2007 storm published earlier this year suggests such storms play a role in the ongoing process of gas escaping from the top of Mars’ atmosphere. That process long ago transformed wetter, warmer ancient Mars into today’s arid, frozen planet. Three of our orbiters, the Curiosity rover and international partners are already in position to study the 2018 storm.


8: Adjusting InSight

Mission controllers for Mars InSight lander–due to land on Mars in November–will be closely monitoring the storm in case the spacecraft’s landing parameters need to be adjusted for safety. 

Once on the Red Planet, InSight will use sophisticated geophysical instruments to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).


9: Martian Weather Report

One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

Track the storm and check the weather on Mars anytime.


10: Dust: Not Just a Martian Thing

A dust storm in the Sahara can change the skies in Miami and temperatures in the North Atlantic. Earth scientists keep close watch on our home planet’s dust storms, which can darken skies and alter Earth’s climate patterns.

Read the full web version of this article HERE

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

5 Out-of-This World Technologies Developed for…

Our James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious and complex space science observatory ever built. It will study every phase in the history of our universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.


In order to carry out such a daring mission, many innovative and powerful new technologies were developed specifically to enable Webb to achieve its primary mission.  

Here are 5 technologies that were developed to help Webb push the boundaries of space exploration and discovery:

1. Microshutters


Microshutters are basically tiny windows with shutters that each measure 100 by 200 microns, or about the size of a bundle of only a few human hairs. 

The microshutter device will record the spectra of light from distant objects (spectroscopy is simply the science of measuring the intensity of light at different wavelengths. The graphical representations of these measurements are called spectra.)


Other spectroscopic instruments have flown in space before but none have had the capability to enable high-resolution observation of up to 100 objects simultaneously, which means much more scientific investigating can get done in less time. 

Read more about how the microshutters work HERE.

2. The Backplane


Webb’s backplane is the large structure that holds and supports the big hexagonal mirrors of the telescope, you can think of it as the telescope’s “spine”. The backplane has an important job as it must carry not only the 6.5 m (over 21 foot) diameter primary mirror plus other telescope optics, but also the entire module of scientific instruments. It also needs to be essentially motionless while the mirrors move to see far into deep space. All told, the backplane carries more than 2400kg (2.5 tons) of hardware.


This structure is also designed to provide unprecedented thermal stability performance at temperatures colder than -400°F (-240°C). At these temperatures, the backplane was engineered to be steady down to 32 nanometers, which is 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair!

Read more about the backplane HERE.

3. The Mirrors


One of the Webb Space Telescope’s science goals is to look back through time to when galaxies were first forming. Webb will do this by observing galaxies that are very distant, at over 13 billion light years away from us. To see such far-off and faint objects, Webb needs a large mirror. 

Webb’s scientists and engineers determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters across is what was needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies. Building a mirror this large is challenging, even for use on the ground. Plus, a mirror this large has never been launched into space before! 


If the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror were scaled to be large enough for Webb, it would be too heavy to launch into orbit. The Webb team had to find new ways to build the mirror so that it would be light enough – only 1/10 of the mass of Hubble’s mirror per unit area – yet very strong. 

Read more about how we designed and created Webb’s unique mirrors HERE.

4. Wavefront Sensing and Control


Wavefront sensing and control is a technical term used to describe the subsystem that was required to sense and correct any errors in the telescope’s optics. This is especially necessary because all 18 segments have to work together as a single giant mirror.

The work performed on the telescope optics resulted in a NASA tech spinoff for diagnosing eye conditions and accurate mapping of the eye.  This spinoff supports research in cataracts, keratoconus (an eye condition that causes reduced vision), and eye movement – and improvements in the LASIK procedure.

Read more about the tech spinoff HERE

5. Sunshield and Sunshield Coating


Webb’s primary science comes from infrared light, which is essentially heat energy. To detect the extremely faint heat signals of astronomical objects that are incredibly far away, the telescope itself has to be very cold and stable. This means we not only have to protect Webb from external sources of light and heat (like the Sun and the Earth), but we also have to make all the telescope elements very cold so they don’t emit their own heat energy that could swamp the sensitive instruments. The temperature also must be kept constant so that materials aren’t shrinking and expanding, which would throw off the precise alignment of the optics.


Each of the five layers of the sunshield is incredibly thin. Despite the thin layers, they will keep the cold side of the telescope at around -400°F (-240°C), while the Sun-facing side will be 185°F (85°C). This means you could actually freeze nitrogen on the cold side (not just liquify it), and almost boil water on the hot side. The sunshield gives the telescope the equivalent protection of a sunscreen with SPF 1 million!

Read more about Webb’s incredible sunshield HERE

Learn more about the Webb Space Telescope and other complex technologies that have been created for the first time by visiting THIS page.

For the latest updates and news on the Webb Space Telescope, follow the mission on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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:

Where in the World is Our Flying Telescope? Ne…


Our flying observatory SOFIA carries a telescope inside this Boeing 747SP aircraft. Scientists use SOFIA to study the universe — including stars, planets and black holes — while flying as high as 45,000 feet.


SOFIA is typically based at our Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, but recently arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, to study celestial objects that are best observed from the Southern Hemisphere.

So what will we study from the land down under?

Eta Carinae


Eta Carinae, in the southern constellation Carina, is the most luminous stellar system within 10,000 light-years of Earth. It’s made of two massive stars that are shrouded in dust and gas from its previous eruptions and may one day explode as a supernova. We will analyze the dust and gas around it to learn how this violent system evolves.

Celestial Magnetic Fields


We can study magnetic fields in the center of our Milky Way galaxy from New Zealand because there the galaxy is high in the sky — where we can observe it for long periods of time. We know that this area has strong magnetic fields that affect the material spiraling into the black hole here and forming new stars. But we want to learn about their shape and strength to understand how magnetic fields affect the processes in our galactic center.

Saturn’s Moon Titan


Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and is the only moon in our solar system to have a thick atmosphere — it’s filled with a smog-like haze. It also has seasons, each lasting about seven Earth years. We want to learn if its atmosphere changes seasonally.


Titan will pass in front of a star in an eclipse-like event called an occultation. We’ll chase down the shadow it casts on Earth’s surface, and fly our airborne telescope directly in its center. 


From there, we can determine the temperature, pressure and density of Titan’s atmosphere. Now that our Cassini Spacecraft has ended its mission, the only way we can continue to monitor its atmosphere is by studying these occultation events.

Nearby Galaxies


The Large Magellanic Cloud is a galaxy near our own, but it’s only visible from the Southern Hemisphere! Inside of it are areas filled with newly forming stars and the leftovers from a supernova explosion.

The Tarantula Nebula


The Tarantula Nebula, also called 30 Doradus, is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud and shown here in this image from Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer. It holds a cluster of thousands of stars forming simultaneously. Once the stars are born, their light and winds push out the material leftover from their parent clouds — potentially leaving nothing behind to create more new stars. We want to know if the material is still expanding and forming new stars, or if the star-formation process has stopped. So our team on SOFIA will make a map showing the speed and direction of the gas in the nebula to determine what’s happening inside it.

Supernova 1987A


Also in the Large Magellanic Cloud is Supernova 1987A, the closest supernova explosion witnessed in almost 400 years. We will continue studying this supernova to better understand the material expanding out from it, which may become the building blocks of future stars and planets. Many of our telescopes have studied Supernova 1987A, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, but our instruments on SOFIA are the only tools we can use to study the debris around it with infrared light, which let us better understand characteristics of the dust that cannot be measured using other wavelengths of light.

For live updates about our New Zealand observations follow SOFIA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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

10 Ways to BBQ on an Alien World

There are over 3,700 planets in our galaxy. Many of them orbit stars outside our solar system, these are known as exoplanets. Spend a summer weekend barbecuing it up on any of these alien worlds.

(WARNING: Don’t try any of this on Earth—except the last one.)

1. Lava World

Janssen aka 55 Cancri e

Hang your steak on a fishing pole and dangle your meat over the boiling pools of lava on this possible magma world. Try two to three minutes on each side to get an ashy feast of deliciousness.

2. Hot Jupiter

Dimidium aka 51 Pegasi b

Set your grill to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit (982 degrees Celsius) or hop onto the first exoplanet discovered and get a perfect char on your hot dogs. By the time your dogs are done, it’ll be New Year’s Eve, because a year on this planet is only four days long.

3. Super Earth

HD 40307 g

Super air fry your duck on this Super Earth, as you skydive in the intense gravity of a planet twice as massive as Earth. Why are you air frying a duck? We don’t know. Why are you skydiving on an exoplanet? We’re not judging.

4. Lightning Neptune


I’ve got steaks, they’re multiplying/and I’m looooosing control. Cause the power this planet is supplying/is electrifying!

Sear your tuna to perfection in the lightning strikes that could flash across the stormy skies of this Neptune-like planet named HAT-P-11b.

5. Red Earth


Tired of all that meat? Try a multi-colored salad with the vibrant plants that could grow under the red sun of this Earth-sized planet. But it could also be a lifeless rock, so BYOB (bring your own barbecue).

6. Inferno World


Don’t take too long to prep your vegetables for the grill! The hottest planet on record will flash-incinerate your veggies in seconds!

7. Egg-shaped


Picture this: You are pressure cooking your chicken on a hot gas giant in the shape of an egg. And you’re under pressure to cook fast, because this gas giant is being pulled apart by its nearby star.

8. Two suns


Evenly cook your ribs in a dual convection oven under the dual stars of this “Tatooine.” Kick back and watch your two shadows grow in the fading light of a double sunset.

9. Takeout


Order in for a staycation in our own solar system. The smell of rotten eggs rising from the clouds of sulfuric acid and choking carbon dioxide will put you off cooking, so get that meal to go.

10. Take a Breath


Sometimes the best vacations are the ones you take at home. Flip your burgers on the only planet where you can breathe the atmosphere.

Grill us on Twitter and tell us how bad our jokes are.

Read the full 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:  

A cluster of newborn stars herald their birth …

A cluster of newborn stars herald their birth in this interstellar picture obtained with our Spitzer Space Telescope. These bright young stars are found in a rosebud-shaped (and rose-colored) nebulosity. The star cluster and its associated nebula are located at a distance of 3300 light-years in the constellation Cepheus.

A recent census of the cluster reveals the presence of 130 young stars. The stars formed from a massive cloud of gas and dust that contains enough raw materials to create a thousand Sun-like stars. In a process that astronomers still poorly understand, fragments of this molecular cloud became so cold and dense that they collapsed into stars. Most stars in our Milky Way galaxy are thought to form in such clusters.

The Spitzer Space Telescope image was obtained with an infrared array camera that is sensitive to invisible infrared light at wavelengths that are about ten times longer than visible light. In this four-color composite, emission at 3.6 microns is depicted in blue, 4.5 microns in green, 5.8 microns in orange, and 8.0 microns in red. The image covers a region that is about one quarter the size of the full moon.

As in any nursery, mayhem reigns. Within the astronomically brief period of a million years, the stars have managed to blow a large, irregular bubble in the molecular cloud that once enveloped them like a cocoon. The rosy pink hue is produced by glowing dust grains on the surface of the bubble being heated by the intense light from the embedded young stars. Upon absorbing ultraviolet and visible-light photons produced by the stars, the surrounding dust grains are heated and re-emit the energy at the longer infrared wavelengths observed by Spitzer. The reddish colors trace the distribution of molecular material thought to be rich in hydrocarbons.

The cold molecular cloud outside the bubble is mostly invisible in these images. However, three very young stars near the center of the image are sending jets of supersonic gas into the cloud. The impact of these jets heats molecules of carbon monoxide in the cloud, producing the intricate green nebulosity that forms the stem of the rosebud.

Not all stars are formed in clusters. Away from the main nebula and its young cluster are two smaller nebulae, to the left and bottom of the central ‘rosebud,’each containing a stellar nursery with only a few young stars.

Astronomers believe that our own Sun may have formed billions of years ago in a cluster similar to this one. Once the radiation from new cluster stars destroys the surrounding placental material, the stars begin to slowly drift apart.

Additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope is available at

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