NICER Image of the Night Sky Than Ever Seen Before

This X-ray of the night sky courtesy of NASA will make your day.
Jessica Miley

NASA is famous for presenting to us some of the most iconic images of space. But this latest image from the American space agency has to be one of the best.

The X-ray image of the night sky will take your breath away. Produced by the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), the image shows the entire night sky in X-rays.


NICER is a payload aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and has the primary goal to target and track cosmic sources as the station orbits Earth every 93 minutes. The image, which is better described as a map, is made from data from the instrument's first 22 months.

NICER investigates dead stars

The bright spots show where NICER spent a longer amount of time fixated towards a particular direction. These spots are important targets that NICER is monitoring.

“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,” said Keith Gendreau, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“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.”

NIGER's main mission is to look for the remains of dead stars called neutron stars. The measurements of these dead stars will help physicists understand what matter exists in their dense cores. These old bundles of gases can sometimes be seen as pulsars or rapidly spinning neutron stars that appear to “pulse” bright light.

Forget GPS, pulsars will help you navigate space

Pulsars are well suited to be observed by NICER and make up a large part of the instrument's targets. It will also use these pulsars to test a new method of navigation. Using pulsars as a way of navigating the night sky might be a method future space explorers can orientate themselves in deep space.

NICER was installed on the ISS in 2017 and since its deployment has provided lots of important scientific work. Recently, the NICER charted new territory around a black hole. The instrument detected X-ray light from the black hole called MAXI J1820+070 (J1820 for short). Waves of X-rays formed “light echoes” that reflected off the swirling gas near the black hole and revealed changes in the environment’s size and shape.

“NICER has allowed us to measure light echoes closer to a stellar-mass black hole than ever before,” said Erin Kara, an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland, College Park and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who presented the findings at the 233rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

“Previously, these light echoes off the inner accretion disk were only seen in supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of solar masses and undergo changes slowly. Stellar black holes like J1820 have much lower masses and evolve much faster, so we can see changes play out on human time scales.”

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