An instrument on board the International Space Station is painting the night skies with X-ray observations of the universe around us — and producing a stunning image in the process.
The NASA device, called the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer, arrived at the space station in June 2017. Its job is to make incredibly precise measurements of the size of neutron stars, the superdense corpses of stars that have exploded. The new image is based on data gathered during its first 22 months at work.
"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," Keith Gendreau, the mission's principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in a statement.
That feature is the bright spot shining out against the darker background toward the upper left corner of the image. Most of the other X-ray sources that stand out in the image are pulsars, which are a type of neutron star that produce jets of X-rays as they spin.
As the space station orbits Earth and passes from day to night and back, NICER swings to point at different specific targets, like these pulsars. The lines arcing across the image represent those swings, with brighter lines marking paths that the instrument follows most often in its investigations. Particular points in the map also appear brighter if NICER has spent more time looking in that direction.
The longer the instrument spends at work, the more scientists will be able to fill in this map — and that may uncover new pulsars for NICER to study that researchers don't yet know to point the instrument toward.
"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," Gendreau said.
- The Sounds of Pulsars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Looks Back on Her Incredible Find in New Video Clip
- Left at the Next Pulsar: Spacecraft Could Navigate by the Stars
- Hear 'Black Widow' Pulsar's Song As It Destroys Companion
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.