Structure of the Universe

JPL research on the Structure of the Universe covers a wide array of topics including understanding the evolution of the universe beginning with the formation of the first galaxies until the present, which is studied via star formation and ultra-, hyper- luminous galaxies, observations in the infrared, active galactic nuclei, their physics and their impact through observations at all wavelengths, dark energy and the distribution of matter in the universe. This research also includes studies of general relativity and its applications, asteroids, Near-Earth Objects, very nearby stars, and star formation in the Galaxy and the local universe.


Current Research Tasks

  • Galaxy evolution, galaxies and galaxy clusters at high redshift, active galactic nuclei, galaxy alignment, dark matter and dark energy
  • Studies of interstellar line emissions for probing the interstellar gas, molecular clouds and star forming regions of the Milky Way and other galaxies
  • Discovery and characterization of small Solar System objects, including Near Earth Objects
  • Spacecraft testing of the Equivalence Principle, gravitational experiments in space


Selected Research Topics


Gravitational Lensing

Hubble image
Hubble Space Telescope image shows Einstein ring of one of the Sloan Lens ACS (SLACS) gravitational lenses, with the lensed background galaxy enhanced in blue. 

Weak and strong gravitational lensing can help solve the puzzle of dark energy by aiding in mapping of the history of the universe’s expansion, measuring the growth of structure, and even probing the very nature of dark matter. Research efforts at JPL are focused on theory and modeling, working with state of the art data from space as well as ground-based observatories, and developing future space missions that would optimally use weak lensing and discover and exploit strong gravitational lenses to solve these fundamental problems. To those ends, JPL researchers are active participants in many missions and collaborations including Euclid, WFIRST, the LSST, the Sloan Lens ACS (SLACS) Survey, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Coordinates, Sizes, Magnitudes, Orientations, and Shapes (COSMOS) Survey, Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH), and more.



Composite NuSTAR image
A composite image composed of NuSTAR data (in magenta) and an optical image of the spiral galaxy IC 342.  The two magenta spots show two very active black hole systems – too powerful to be stellar-mass black holes, but not powerful enough to be AGN. These may be candidates for the elusive “intermediate mass” black holes often predicted, but not yet confirmed to exist. Image Credit: NASA

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) is the first focusing hard X-ray telescope in orbit, allowing true imaging in this largely unknown region of the spectrum. The telescope array has been conducting a census of black holes on all scales, mapping newly-created radioactive material in nebulae from recently-exploded stars, and exploring jets of plasma ejected at nearly the speed of light from the most powerful AGN in order to understand what powers these giant engines. 


Spitzer Space Telescope

In addition to studying the origin of stars and planets, the Spitzer infrared observatory is also used to study galaxies at distances so great that it allows us to see them as they existed billions of years ago. All light from these galaxies is stretched by the expansion of the universe to about twice its normal wavelength. (For example, the emission line of oxygen with a wavelength of 0.501 μm and the H| | line at 0.656 μm are shifted to 1.0 and 1.3 microns.) While local galaxies can be studied at optical wavelengths, high redshift galaxies are best studied in the infrared. Spitzer has exhausted its cryogenic coolant as per plan, but the observatory is still being operated as a warm mission (only cooled to the temperature of cold space).



Asteroid belt Holda
A color composite image showing multiple detections of the main belt asteroid (872) Holda. The images combined to make this composite were obtained on the first day of the NEOWISE Reactivation survey.

The NEOWISE project is the asteroid-hunting portion of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. Funded by NASA's Planetary Science Division, NEOWISE harvests measurements of asteroids and comets from the WISE images and provides a rich archive with which to search WISE data for solar system objects. During its primary mission, NEOWISE delivered infrared detections of more than 158,000 minor planets to the scientific community, including more than 34,000 new discoveries. NEOWISE data have been used to set limits on the numbers, orbits, sizes, and probable compositions of asteroids throughout our solar system, and enabled the discovery of the first known Earth Trojan asteroid. NEOWISE has been brought out of hibernation to learn more about the population of near-Earth objects and comets that could pose an impact hazard to the Earth.