Space

This X-ray view of the night sky reveals a whole new way of seeing the Universe

Based on this recently released snapshot of the night sky captured by NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), we can safely assume Superman gets no sleep at night. Just look at that thing. 

The sparkling dots and tangled loops are the result of nearly two years of effort to study cosmic sources of X-rays from Earth’s orbit.

As a piece of art, it’s stunning. Check it out in all its glory below, complete with details identifying the relevant spots, or in high detail here on NASA’s Goddard media page.

nicer x Ray map with tags(NASA/NICER)

To fully appreciate its beauty, though, let’s break down what this golden fireworks display actually describes.

On board the International Space Station (ISS) sits the workhorse of the NICER payload – a washing-machine sized cube called an X-ray Timing Instrument.

Roughly every hour and a half, after the Sun sets on the ISS orbit, the instrument scoops up high energy photons from up to eight locations per orbit in the night sky.

Every curved line is the path traced as the instrument’s attention shifts from one source to the next. The smaller flecks and lines are energetic particles crashing into the sensors.

But the bigger ‘sparkles’ are of particular interest, their brightness the result of both the amount of time NICER spends focussed on that spot and their generous outpouring of X-ray radiation.

Many of the locations are home to dead suns called neutron stars; objects so dense, the only thing keeping them from collapsing into a black hole is a law that says their nuclei can’t all pile into the same volume. Not without considerably more force, at least.

The problem is, we’re still not entirely sure how that works, as the exact sizes of neutron stars aren’t clear.

Knowing their precise radius can tell us more about the crazy physics going on inside their bodies. It’s hoped this mission could determine their size to within a precision of just 5 percent.

Some of those neutron stars are quick spinners called pulsars. Nailing down the time of each sweep of their lighthouse-like X-ray beams can provide astronomers with a highly detailed set of coordinates.

An upgrade to NICER called the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) experiment will collect information that should not only help guide the future of the mission, but contribute to future space exploration as a whole.

It might look messy, but there’s a lot of information in that bowl of cosmic spaghetti and meatballs.

“Even with minimal processing, this image reveals the Cygnus Loop, a supernova remnant about 90 light-years across and thought to be 5,000 to 8,000 years old,” says principal investigator Keith Gendreau from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“We’re gradually building up a new X-ray image of the whole sky, and it’s possible NICER’s night time sweeps will uncover previously unknown sources.”

Even if none of that impresses you, at least you can look at it and imagine you’re an astronomer with X-ray vision – casually star-gazing on Krypton.

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