NICER

The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer

Installed aboard the International Space Station in June 2017, NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer provides high-precision measurements of neutron stars, objects containing ultra-dense matter at the threshold of collapse into black holes. NICER will also test, for the first time in space, technology that uses pulsars as navigation beacons. For more information visit the NICER website.

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Produced Videos

  • NICER Charts the Area Around a New Black Hole
    2019.01.30
    Scientists have mapped the environment surrounding a black hole that is 10 times the mass of the Sun using NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload aboard the International Space Station. NICER detected X-ray light from a recently discovered black hole, called MAXI J1820+070 (J1820 for short), as it consumed material from a companion star. 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. A black hole can siphon gas from a nearby star and into a ring of material called an accretion disk that glows in X-rays. Above this disk is the corona, a region of subatomic particles that glows in higher-energy X-rays. Astrophysicists want to better understand how the inner edge of the accretion disk and the corona change in size and shape as a black hole accretes material from its companion star. If they can understand how and why these changes occur in stellar-mass black holes over a period of weeks, they could shed light on how supermassive black holes evolve over millions of years and how they affect the galaxies in which they reside. One method used to chart those changes is called X-ray reverberation mapping, which uses X-ray reflections in much the same way sonar uses sound waves to map undersea terrain. From 10,000 light-years away, the scientists estimated that the corona contracted vertically from roughly 100 to 10 miles — that’s like seeing something the size of a blueberry shrink to something the size of a poppy seed at the distance of Pluto.
  • NASA'S NICER Does the Space Station Twist
    2018.08.14
    This time-lapse video, obtained June 8, 2018, shows the precise choreography of NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) as it studies pulsars and other X-ray sources from its perch aboard the International Space Station. NICER observes and tracks numerous sources each day, ranging from the star closest to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, to X-ray sources in other galaxies. Movement in the movie, which represents a little more than one 90-minute orbit, is sped up by 100 times. One factor in NICER’s gyrations is the motion of the space station’s solar arrays, each of which extends 112 feet (34 meters). Long before the panels can encroach on NICER’s field of view, the instrument pirouettes to aim its 56 X-ray telescopes at a new celestial target. As the movie opens, the station’s solar arrays are parked to prepare for the arrival and docking of the Soyuz MS-09 flight, which launched on June 6 carrying three members of the Expedition 56 crew. Then the panels reorient themselves and begin their normal tracking of the Sun. Neutron stars, also called pulsars, are the crushed cores left behind when massive stars explode. They hold more mass than the Sun in a ball no bigger than a city. NICER aims to discover more about pulsars by obtaining precise measures of their size, which will determine their internal make-up. An embedded technology demonstration, called Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT), is paving the way for using pulsars as beacons for a future GPS-like system to aid spacecraft navigation in the solar system — and beyond.
  • NICER Mission Overview
    2017.06.01
    The Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload, destined for the exterior of the space station, will study the physics of neutron stars, providing new insight into their nature and behavior. These stars are called “pulsars” because of the unique way they emit light – in a beam similar to a lighthouse beacon. As the star spins, the light sweeps past us, making it appear as if the star is pulsing. Neutron stars emit X-ray radiation, enabling the NICER technology to observe and record information about their structure, dynamics and energetics. The payload also includes a technology demonstration called the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) which will help researchers to develop a pulsar-based space navigation system. Pulsar navigation could work similarly to GPS on Earth, providing precise position and time for spacecraft throughout the solar system.

    The 2-in-1 mission launched on June 3, 2017 aboard SpaceX's eleventh contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station. The payload arrived at the space station in the Dragon spacecraft, along with other cargo, on June 5, 2017.

  • What is a neutron star?
    2017.05.18
    Here's just some of what we already know about neutron stars. An upcoming NASA mission will further investigate these unusual objects from the International Space Station. The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer mission, or NICER, will study the extraordinary environments — strong gravity, ultra-dense matter, and the most powerful magnetic fields in the universe — embodied by neutron stars. NICER is a two-in-one mission. The embedded Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology, or SEXTANT, demonstration will use NICER data to validate, for the first time in space, pulsar-based navigation.

    NICER is planned for launch aboard the SpaceX CRS-11, currently scheduled for June 1, 2017. Learn more about the mission at nasa.gov/nicer.

  • NICER: Launching Soon to the Space Station
    2017.05.22
    This video previews the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER). NICER is an Astrophysics Mission of Opportunity within NASA’s Explorer program, which provides frequent flight opportunities for world-class scientific investigations from space utilizing innovative, streamlined and efficient management approaches within the heliophysics and astrophysics science areas. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate supports the SEXTANT component of the mission, demonstrating pulsar-based spacecraft navigation. NICER is an upcoming International Space Station payload scheduled to launch in June 2017.

    Learn more about the mission at nasa.gov/nicer.

  • NICER in Space
    2017.07.17
    Several cameras on the International Space Station (ISS) have eyes on NICER. Since arriving to the space station on June 5 – aboard SpaceX’s eleventh cargo resupply mission – NICER underwent robotic installation on ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 2, initial deployment, precise point tests and more. This video shows segments of NICER’s time in space. Scientists and engineers will continue to watch NICER, using these cameras, throughout the mission’s science operations.

Animations

  • NICER Payload Animations
    2017.04.26
    Animated video and stills of the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload.
  • Neutron Star Animations (NICER Mission)
    2017.04.26
    The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission will study neutron stars, the densest known objects in the cosmos. These neutron star animations and graphics highlight some of their unique characteristics.

    For more information about NICER visit: nasa.gov/nicer.

  • NICER Lensing
    2017.04.26
    The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission will study neutron stars, the densest known objects in the cosmos. These neutron star animations and graphics highlight some of their unique characteristics.

    For more information about NICER visit: nasa.gov/nicer.

Raw Footage/B-roll

  • NICER Electromagnetic Testing Time-lapse Videos
    2016.02.03
    The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload undergoes electromagnetic testing at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

    Electromagnetic testing serves to verify that NICER’s electrical subsystems do not interfere with each other or with International Space Station electrical systems through, for example, conducted or transmitted emissions. This test also verifies that NICER is not susceptible to malfunction due to the electromagnetic environment of the space station. Two time-lapse videos show the NICER payload deploy during electromagnetic testing and return to its stowed configuration following the tests.

  • NICER Lift Time-lapse
    2015.12.23
    Time-lapse of NICER's box-shaped X-ray Timing Instrument (XTI), with attached flight electronics and the payload's pointing system, being lifted in a clean-tent at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The XTI was lifted and positioned onto the flight Adapter Plate, NICER's interface to the International Space Station-provided hardware for installation on station.
  • NICER Range of Motion Time-lapse
    2016.04.11
    Time-lapse of the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) range of motion test was taken on April 11, 2016, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
  • NICER Mission B-roll Footage
    2017.03.10
    The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission was built and tested at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

    In addition to NASA Goddard scientists and engineers, the mission team includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commercial partners, who provided spaceflight hardware.

SEXTANT Demonstration

NICER is a two-in-one mission. In addition to its cutting-edge astrophysics investigations, the embedded Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) component will demonstrate a technological first: real-time, autonomous spacecraft navigation using pulsars as beacons. For more information, visit the SEXTANT website.
  • SEXTANT: Navigating by Cosmic Beacon
    2013.04.05
    Imagine a technology that would allow space travelers to transmit gigabytes of data per second over interplanetary distances or to navigate to Mars and beyond using powerful beams of light emanating from rotating neutron stars. The concept isn't farfetched.

    In fact, Goddard astrophysicists Keith Gendreau and Zaven Arzoumanian plan to fly a multi-purpose instrument on the International Space Station to demonstrate the viability of two groundbreaking navigation and communication technologies and, from the same platform, gather scientific data revealing the physics of dense matter in neutron stars.

Presentation Resources

  • Science with NICER
    2015.01.15
    Dr. Zaven Arzoumanian's AAS presentation from January 2015
  • SEXTANT: Navigating by Cosmic Beacon
    2013.04.05
    Imagine a technology that would allow space travelers to transmit gigabytes of data per second over interplanetary distances or to navigate to Mars and beyond using powerful beams of light emanating from rotating neutron stars. The concept isn't farfetched.

    In fact, Goddard astrophysicists Keith Gendreau and Zaven Arzoumanian plan to fly a multi-purpose instrument on the International Space Station to demonstrate the viability of two groundbreaking navigation and communication technologies and, from the same platform, gather scientific data revealing the physics of dense matter in neutron stars.

Related Animations

  • Neutron Stars - A Closer Perspective:
    2008.07.21
    Two views of a Neutron Star: First, a closeup view of a neutron star cycling before, during and after a gamma ray burst and second, crossing a Protoplanetary Nebula toward an elusive Neutron Star
  • Pulsar Blinking
    2010.03.05
    A pulsar is a neutron star which emits beams of radiation that sweep through the earth's line of sight. Like a black hole, it is an endpoint to stellar evolution. The "pulses" of high-energy radiation we see from a pulsar are due to a misalignment of the neutron star's rotation axis and its magnetic axis. Pulsars pulse because the rotation of the neutron star causes the radiation generated within the magnetic field to sweep in and out of our line of sight with a regular period. External viewers see pulses of radiation whenever this region above the the magnetic pole is visible. Because of the rotation of the pulsar, the pulses thus appear much as a distant observer sees a lighthouse appear to blink as its beam rotates. The pulses come at the same rate as the rotation of the neutron star, and, thus, appear periodic.
  • Pulsars Emit Gamma-rays from Equator
    2009.01.09
    A pulsar is a rapidly spinning and highly magnetized neutron star, the crushed core left behind when a massive sun explodes. Most were found through their pulses at radio wavelengths, which are thought to be caused by narrow, lighthouse-like beams emanating from the star's magnetic poles.

    When it comes to gamma-rays, pulsars are no longer lighthouses. A new class of gamma-ray-only pulsars shows that the gamma rays must form in a broader region than the lighthouse-like radio beam. Astronomers now believe the pulsed gamma rays arise far above the neutron star.

  • Gamma Rays in Pulsars
    2008.04.16
    This animation takes us into a spinning pulsar, with its strong magnetic field rotating along with it. Clouds of charged particles move along the field lines and their gamma-rays are beamed like a lighthouse beacon by the magnetic fields. As our line of sight moves into the beam, we see the pulsations once every rotation of the neutron star.