NASA's NICER Shows What Universe Looks Like If Humans Could See X-Rays

NASA stitched together an image of the sky using X-ray data from the first 22 months of the NICER observatory onboard the International Space Station. The arcs and bright spots represent X-rays, strikes from energetic particles, and the amount of time that NICER looked at a certain direction.   ( NASA/NICER )

NASA has created a stunning image of the night sky using X-rays recorded by its Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer, better known as NICER.

A New Look At The Night Sky

NICER is a payload on the International Space Station. Its primary goal is to track cosmic sources while the laboratory makes an orbit around the Earth every 93 minutes.

However, according to NASA, scientists keep the detectors of NICER awake even after the sun has set. The incredible image posted on the website of the space agency on Thursday, May 30, is the result of the observatory's first 22 months onboard the orbital outpost.

Each arc in the image traces X-rays, one of the most energetic forms of light in the universe, as well as energetic particle strikes captured during nighttime. Each point of brightness, meanwhile, is the result of these contributions and the amount of time that the observatory spent looking in that direction.

While observing the night sky, NICER has spotted the glow of a recent supernova — the powerful explosion of a massive star.

"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," explained Keith Gendreu, the mission's principal investigator. "We're gradually building up a new X-ray image of the whole sky, and it's possible NICER's nighttime sweeps will uncover previously unknown sources."

NICER's Mission At The ISS

NASA hopes that the NICER mission will help scientists determine the size of neutron stars — the very dense remains from the explosive death of another larger star — and pulsars — rotating neutron stars that emit pulses of radiation at regular intervals.

The study could enable physicists to solve the mystery of the exotic forms of matter that exist at the core of neutron stars.

Meanwhile, NICER's Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology or SEXTANT experiment uses the X-ray pulses of pulsars to figure out the observatory's location in space and the speed it is moving. NASA described the instrument as "a galactic GPS system" that one day will guide autonomous spacecraft navigate throughout the solar system and travel further into the universe.

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