The night sky in X-ray: Image reveals observations of NASA’s neutron star-tracking instrument

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A striking new image released by NASA this week shows the night sky as seen by the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), an instrument aboard the International Space Station.

NICER has spent roughly the last two years tracking the cosmic sources it encounters as the station orbits Earth – a trip that takes just 93 minutes.

The incredible image shows the data from its first 22 months of operation, tracing X-rays and areas of high-energy particle collisions.

NASA’s NICER instrument is designed to target cosmic sources. At night, its detectors remain up and running so it can collect data as it makes repeated passes of these bright sources.

According to the space agency, the arcs and bright spots in the image are the result of the path NICER follows, forming more radiant clusters in its most popular destinations.

These are the X-ray sources considered to be more important, and it will visit those more frequently.

Some targets may be visited as many as eight times each orbit.

An annotated version of the image shows NICER has observed everything from nebulae and supernovae to pulsars and black hole binaries.

‘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.

‘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.’

According to NASA, the instrument is primarily working to study neutron stars. These are the dense remains of dead stars, and could scientists better understand what’s in their cores.

NICER is also leading an experiment that works as ‘essentially a galactic GPS system,’ the space agency says.

This experiment, called Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) experiment, uses the timing of pulsar X-ray pulses to determine where NICER is at any given moment and how fast it’s going.

 

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