A coloured network that resembles a vortex with a central tightening. The outer areas of the vortex appear blue-greyish with magenta-white islands, while the circular core area appears in deep blue.

Astronomy

About human curiosity and endless space 

Since prehistoric times, people all around the world have been fascinated by space. Astronomy fills people with wonder, decorates the bedrooms of children and unsettles worldviews. Astronomical research doesn't just push the boundaries of knowledge; astronomers are searching for answers to the great questions of human existence. How big is the Universe? How did it come to exist? Where do we come from? And are we alone in space or is there life beyond Earth?

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Orange-brown torus with two white rays and various grey lumps extending into black along its axis of symmetry

The black hole already weighed a billion solar masses when the universe was still in its infancy more

Planet-forming disks around very low-mass stars are different

JWST discovers a large variety of carbon-rich gases that serve as ingredients for future planets around a very low-mass star more

A multitude of white-yellowish roundish spots with halos sitting in a larger black spot against a grey background

New scientific data from the Euclid Space Telescope reveals the mystery of the faint glow in the Perseus galaxy cluster more

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Orange-brown torus with two white rays and various grey lumps extending into black along its axis of symmetry

The black hole already weighed a billion solar masses when the universe was still in its infancy more

A multitude of white-yellowish roundish spots with halos sitting in a larger black spot against a grey background

New scientific data from the Euclid Space Telescope reveals the mystery of the faint glow in the Perseus galaxy cluster more

Reddish planet is illuminated in a very narrow orbit by its central star (top left in the image)

High temperatures and extreme wind speeds influence the chemistry inside the planet’s atmosphere. more

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Research highlights 2023

Many publications by Max Planck scientists in 2023 were of great social relevance or met with a great media response. We have selected 12 articles to present you with an overview of some noteworthy research of the year more

Close-up of two people in surgical clothing and FFP masks working on a shiny, bright metal apparatus. On the left of the picture is an optical lens, about the size of the palm of the hand, set in a metal frame, on the right is the metal frame on which the lens system is to be placed.

The Euclid space telescope contains technology from two Max Planck Institutes more

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Is there life out there?

Is Earth unique? Astronomy is getting ever closer to answering this perhaps most fundamental question. The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and its gigantic instruments are already able to image the places where Earth-like planets could form. The James Webb Space Telescope combs through the infrared light emitted by these young disks of dust and gas and finds signatures of complex molecules that could act as building blocks of Earth-like planets and even life. The next revolution will be heralded by what will soon be the world's largest telescope in 2028, which will observe in both visible and infrared light. It could be the first telescope to detect life on extrasolar planets. The construction site of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) already gives an idea of the dimensions of the dome construction, comparable to the Colosseum in Rome.

Three interlocking rings of different colors (white-yellow inside, yellow-red in the middle, violet outside) with a bright white dot in the middle from which rays emanate in all directions. In the lower right foreground, various minerals are depicted in front of a black circle. Lines point from the minerals to each ring.
A three-ringed structure in the planet-forming zone of a circumstellar disk where metals and minerals serve as a reservoir of planetary building blocks more
Rays of light lead from an orange disc with a bright yellow centre at the bottom right into the upper left half of the picture, which is criss-crossed by differently coloured streaks against a background of stars.
Planets like our Earth, including planets with water, could form even in the harshest known star-forming environments, drenched by hard UV light from massive stars. more

Therefore Astronomy!

Thanks to ever-improving instruments and constantly increasing data volumes, new aspects and nuances of the Universe are being revealed. However, each new insight generates new questions. For example, why the majority of the cosmos is made of dark matter and dark energy – about which we still know little today.

There have been many worldviews throughout human history in which the stars have played a central role. From symbol of the gods to scientific surveys: looking into the night sky has shaped the foundations of countless perspectives on our world. What role does astronomy have today – during times in which examining our home planet seems more urgent to some than looking into space? Each search for new worlds also tells a story about the uniqueness and fragility of our own planet. Data from astronomical research help us to understand climate change. Notably, astronomical research also shows us what can be achieved by large-scale international cooperation.

Over the last 100 years, our knowledge of the Universe has grown at an inconceivable rate. Researchers have powerful telescopes and space probes at their disposal, allowing them to glimpse into the depths of the universe. Supercomputers evaluate the resulting huge data volumes. In this way, cosmic phenomena can be researched with unprecedented accuracy. Highly complex computer models enable an increasingly intricate understanding of the emergence of the universe. Researchers are constantly gaining new insights into dark matter and dark energy, in spite of the fact that they have not yet been able to provide concrete proof of their existence.

The alchemy of neutron stars
Astronomers find out that the collision of these cosmic objects actually produces heavy elements more
Surface of a fictitious planet. It consists of hills of rock. In the background is a lake. The sky has some clouds. Near the horizon a sun shines and bathes the picture in a reddish colour.
Astronomers find rare Earth-mass rocky planet suitable for the search for signs of life more
Cosmic carousels
The new cosmological simulation TNG50 shows how the universe evolved and order gradually emerged from chaos more

Light as a universal information supplier

The philosophers of ancient times attempted to explain the world they saw before them. The invention of the telescope marked the beginning of a new era: in 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered four moons which orbit the planet Jupiter using simple means. Just a few hundred years later, international research collectives have erected large observatories on high mountains. For example, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile's Atacama desert, one of the most productive optical instruments in the world. It was here that a team led by Reinhard Genzel investigated the black hole at the center of our Milky Way, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020.

It isn't just visible light that plays an important role in astronomy; the universe is also illuminated by wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye. Researchers use the entire electromagnetic spectrum of radio waves right through to gamma rays in order to chart a comprehensive picture of the Universe.
 

A still image of the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*, as seen by the Event Horizon Collaboration (EHT), with an artist’s illustration indicating where the modelling of the ALMA data predicts the hot spot to be and its orbit around the black hole.
Researchers discover a hot spot near the black hole Sagittarius A* with the radio telescope ALMA more
The universe in a new dimension
Astronomical objects appear in unprecedented detail in the first images from the James Webb Telescope more
Gamma light from a nova
With the H.E.S.S. observatory and the Fermi satellite, researchers track the eruption of RS Ophiuchi more
Zooming into the galactic centre
Astronomers obtain the deepest and sharpest images to date of the region around the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way more

Many eyes see more than two

Sometimes, even the biggest telescope is not capable of observing extremely distant or very special astronomical objects such as black holes. If matter or even light gets too close to a black hole, there is no escape. This is why obtaining an image of a black hole is technically impossible. Yet, this is exactly what radio astronomers managed to do as part of a global collaborative project. Connecting multiple radio telescopes on different continents with nanosecond precision allows them to create a virtual telescope with the diameter of the Earth – the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn is a partner in this project. At the Institute, huge sections of the enormous data volumes supplied by the telescope network are evaluated.

The world's first image of a black hole was published by the EHT collaboration in 2019. It showed a supermassive black hole at the center of the giant elliptical galaxy M87. In the meantime, they have also produced a "portrait photo" of Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of our Milky Way.

Purple disc with rays emanating vertically upwards and downwards from the disc
New observations reveal how a powerful jet forms around a black hole more
First-ever image of a black hole
Max Planck researchers involved in direct observation of the massive gravity trap in the Messier 87 galaxy more
“An astounding coincidence with theory”
Max Planck Director Anton Zensus on the first observation of the shadow of a black hole more

So close and yet so far – our home in space

For a long time, humans considered themselves to be at the center of the cosmos. However, our solar system actually occupies a rather modest position in the Universe. It sits in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, and orbits the center of the Milky Way at a distance of 25,000 to 28,000 light years. Inside our flat spiral galaxy alone there are hundreds of billions of stars, including our sun.

While we know a lot about our solar system today thanks to astronomical research, our immediate surroundings still present us with many riddles. Due to the relatively small distances – in astronomic terms – between objects inside it, our solar system can be explored with space probes. Equipped with cutting edge measuring instruments and camera systems, these uncrewed spacecraft transmit data to Earth, from which researchers can determine the composition of the atmosphere of a planet or the surface of an asteroid.

The probe Solar Orbiter, which was launched on February 10, 2020, is closer to the sun now than any probe which has come before it. For the first time, it will investigate the sun's poles. From this mission, the team led by Sami Solanki from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research hopes to glean decisive insights into solar winds and the emergence of the sun's magnetic field. Both have far-reaching consequences for the Earth.

Close-ups of the Sun
Solar Orbiter captures images of our star from a distance of just 77 million kilometres more
A traveler from the edge of the Solar System
Iron isotopes in samples from asteroid Ryugu suggest its origin to lie beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn more

The cosmos shakes

When large moving masses – such as two black holes – collide in space, this causes tremors in space-time, as Albert Einstein described in his theory of relativity, one hundred years ago. Einstein himself did not believe that humans could ever measure these gravitational waves, because the signals are too weak by the time they reach Earth.

In spite of Einstein's skepticism, on September 14, 2015, that’s just what happened: two large detectors in the United States had measured gravitational waves for the first time. The Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Potsdam and Hanover played a decisive role in the success. Here, vital components of the highly sensitive measuring equipment were developed and built. Using calculations and simulations, researchers at the Institute created the basis for recognizing the relevant signals in the flood of measurement data. Although cosmic catastrophes such as the collision of neutron stars release a gigantic amount of energy, the signals that eventually reach Earth become subtle vibrations in the noise of space.

For the first time, astronomers have at their disposal a type of information that is not dependent on electromagnetic radiation, i.e. light. This allows them new insights into the cosmos, potentially even into the initial short period of time directly following the Big Bang, as during this period the universe was not yet transparent to light. 

Gravitational waves detected 100 years after Einstein's prediction
For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos. more
Gravitational waves from merging neutron stars
This cosmic event was also observed in visible light and provides an explanation for gamma-ray bursts more
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