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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.