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The Cosmos Revealed, From Here on Earth

A virtual tour of remarkable ground-based, optical/infrared telescopes and some of their dazzling discoveries.

Sep 16, 2016 5:00 AMNov 20, 2019 9:15 PM


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Photo Credits: T.A. Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage; WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

The WIYN 0.9-meter telescope on Arizona’s Kitt Peak imaged the Elephant Trunk Nebula as it floats within the faint star cluster known as IC 1396 some 3,000 light-years away from Earth. The nebula’s long cloud of dust and gas serves as an incubator for young, developing stars. It also holds the raw materials for star formation.

Photo Credits: Mark Hanna; NOAO/AURA/NSF

As the sun sinks below the horizon, the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope atop Arizona’s Kitt Peak prepares to scan the northern night sky. In operation since 1994, the telescope uses a combination of three mirrors, the largest of which weighs over 2 tons and stretches 3.5 meters wide; and advanced imaging instruments; to produce some of the clearest images ever seen of celestial objects and events.

Photo Credits: T.A. Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage, and H. Schweiker, WIYN; NOAO/AURA/NSF

The sharp outline of the Baby Eagle Nebula is a tribute to the imaging advances contained in NSF’s Mayall Telescope on Arizona’s Kitt Peak. Baby Eagle lies about 450 light-years from Earth within a larger cloud of dust and gas known as the Taurus Molecular Cloud.

Photo Credits: Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc;LSST Corporation

When completed, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), illustrated here, will mark a new chapter in ground-based optical astronomy.

NSF leads the public-private partnership building the telescope on Chile’s Cerro Pachon. LSST’s powerful 3200-megapixel camera will sweep over an area of sky 40 times the size of the full moon each night, producing 800 panoramic images. Twice a week, it will map the entire visible sky, a feat not yet possible on such a large scale. The telescope’s powerful imaging tools will detect objects 10 million times fainter than those visible to the naked eye.

During the next decade, NSF’s network of advanced ground-based, optical/infrared observatories, combined with its radio, particle and gravitational wave observatories, will provide some of the most critical advances in understanding our planet’s origins and the universe that surrounds it.

The images in this NSF gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Jin Ma; Beijing Planetarium

Although it looks like a scene from the sci-fi thriller “Gravity,” the bright pop of light in this image comes from ASASSN-15lh, the most powerful supernova ever discovered.

This artist’s concept depicts the burst as seen from an exoplanet about 10,000 light-years away. From Earth, twin telescopes on Cerro Tololo in Chile captured light from ASASSN-15lh that astronomers measured as 570 billion times brighter than the sun. With lenses a mere 14-centimeters (5.5 inches) in diameter, the telescopes are part of the NSF-supported All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae.

Their ability to automatically sweep the night sky with magnification 25,000 times greater than the human eye signals a new chapter in probing the entire night sky.

Photo Credits: T. Abbott; NOAO/AURA/NSF

Resting on the flattened summit of Chile’s Cerro Tololo, the silvered-dome of the 4-meter Blanco Telescope and three of its neighbors catch the last rays of day, while preparing for nighttime observations. An integral piece of NSF’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the Blanco is nearly identical to Kitt Peak’s Mayall Telescope.

Photo Credits: Southwest Research Institute

The Gemini North Observatory made a groundbreaking discovery when it captured the rise and fall of the atmosphere surrounding Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.

At the time, Io was more than 420 million miles from Earth. When Io moves into the planet’s shadow, the temperature drop causes Io’s atmosphere to collapse. As the moon emerges from the shadow, the atmosphere redevelops. This illustration shows Io, the most volcanically active object in the solar system, reconstituting its atmosphere with volcanic plumes.

Photo Credits: Gemini Observatory

Stunning to view against a summer sky, NSF’s Gemini North telescope atop Maunakea in Hawaii is one of two identical telescopes that make up the Gemini Observatory.

Together, the telescopes scan the entire sky over both hemispheres. Their identical 8-meter mirrors are the only ones in the world coated with silver rather than the more commonly used aluminum. This approach permits the telescopes to observe visible light, as well as increasing their sensitivity to heat generated by objects in space. The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration between the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

Photo Credits: Gemini Observatory/AURA; Julia I. Arias and Rodolfo H. Barbá, Departamento de Fisica, Universidad de la Serena, Chile/ICATE-CONICET, Argentina

For over 60 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has played a significant role in advancing astronomical research. From its first contract to build the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, NSF has funded construction and operation of some of the world’s most renowned telescopes. This commitment to discovery has helped the U.S. become the global leader in ground-based astronomy. NSF support helps astronomers make fundamental discoveries about the universe—from new exoplanets to the origins of galaxies—to provide vital training for next-generation researchers. Many of the imaging and software advances also benefit consumers through technology spinoffs.

NSF telescopes cover the entire electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to gamma rays. The following images offer a virtual tour of NSF’s remarkable ground-based, optical/infrared telescopes and some of their dazzling discoveries.

Pictured here: The birth of new stars within the Milky Way’s Lagoon Nebula captured by NSF’s Gemini South Telescope in Chile. The nebula is 5,000 light-years away.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: P. Marenfeld; NOAO/AURA/NSF

Rising nearly 7,000 feet above southwestern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, Kitt Peak is home to the world’s largest collection of optical and radio telescopes. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory, supported by NSF, hosts 22 optical and two radio observatories on the mountain's top 200 acres. The 18-story Mayall 4-meter Telescope dominates the landscape.

Photo Credits: P. Michaud, S. Fisher and R. Carrasco, Gemini Observatory; T. Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage

Although this looks like a single nebula, NSF’s Gemini South Observatory revealed it is actually two separate gas and dust clouds formed by different types of supernova explosions. Called DEM L316, it is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud and extending over 140 light-years, about 35 times the distance between the sun and its closest star.

Photo Credits: Gemini Observatory/AURA image; Manuel Paredes

As the moon illuminates the interior of NSF’s Gemini South Telescope, astronomers gear up for a night of observation.

Located on the steep cliffs of Cerro Pachon in Chile’s Andes Mountains, Gemini South complements its Hawaiian twin Gemini North. Each weighs 418 tons and stretches seven stories from the observation floor. To achieve their unprecedented views of the universe, both telescopes use adaptive optics. Like an optician on the fly, this technology corrects image distortions from Earth’s atmosphere with multiple smaller mirrors under computer control. The technology can produce images that exceed the image quality of space-based observatories.

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