Check out stunning photos from the $2 billion space telescope that captures the invisible universe — and that NASA plans to defund

  • NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory faces budget cuts that may end its mission.

  • Chandra still makes new black-hole discoveries and joins forces with the Webb and Hubble telescopes.

  • Photos show how the space telescope has beautifully captured the invisible universe for 25 years.

One of NASA's top space telescopes may be facing an untimely end due to budget cuts.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory has been orbiting Earth for 25 years, peering at the universe in X-ray light that's invisible to the human eye.

Through its stunning images, the telescope has revealed that the cosmos is teeming with black holes, discovered direct evidence for the existence of dark matter, and spotted the light of colliding neutron stars that warped space-time.

Check out some of Chandra's best photos, including collaborations with the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is one of NASA's flagship space telescopes.

purple turbulent nebula in space against a royal blue starry background

The observatory cost NASA about $2.2 billion to build and launch, and it has paid off.

"For many years it was the most productive mission in NASA's program if measured in publications/dollar spent," Thomas Zurbuchen, who was the Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate from 2016 to 2022, told Business Insider in an email.

But in its budget request for the 2025 fiscal year, NASA slashed Chandra's funding from $68 million to $41 million.

supernova remnant colorful multi-layered bubble of wavy yellow green blue red purple in black space
Combined data from Chandra and Webb revealed new details of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A.X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI; IR: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Milisavljevic et al., NASA/JPL/CalTech; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt and K. Arcand

Over the ensuing years, the budget proposes to give the observatory $26.6 million annually until a drastic plummet to $5.2 million in 2029.

That budget plan is not enough to keep the telescope running at full capacity.

uranus blue tilted planet with faint white rings and a splash of pink across its center
Chandra revealed X-ray emissions (pink) on Uranus for the first time, either from its rings, from auroras on the planet, or from its atmosphere scattering the sun's X-rays.X-ray: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al; Infrared: W.M. Keck Observatory

In fact, Chandra's operating team says that's just the amount it would need to decommission the telescope and end its operations.

The observatory still makes new discoveries, like the record-setting black hole in this image.

Webb and Chandra composite image of a galaxy of stars with cross-section zoomed in on black hole speck.
The James Webb and Chandra telescopes teamed up to produce this X-ray image of the most distant black hole ever discovered.X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/Ákos Bogdán; Infrared: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/L. Frattare & K. Arcand

It's both the most distant black hole ever detected, and at a stage of infancy that had never been seen before.

Chandra also complements Webb and Hubble photos by imaging ultra-hot material that's invisible to those telescopes.

pillars of creation eagle nebula textured fingers of blue-grey clouds in space with bright pink stars in the background and foreground
The "Pillars of Creation," a formation of dusty clouds where new stars are born, as imaged by the James Webb and Chandra space telescopes.X-ray: NASA/CXO/SAO; Infrared: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI; Image processing: L. Frattare.

For example, Chandra revealed a sea of young stars burning bright in X-rays across the above Webb image of the iconic Pillars of Creation, a cloud formation constantly birthing new stars.

"Often you get like a gas cloud that's glowing, and then there's this X-ray source in the middle that's pumping the energy into it that's causing it to glow," Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who leads science data systems for Chandra, told Business Insider. "If you don't have Chandra, you can't see that. So you're missing a big part of the story."

For instance, take the bright X-ray footprint at the center of the Milky Way in this image.

starry space with faint red blue orange clouds dense in the center with a bright white spot in the middle labeled SGR A* as the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy
Chandra spotted Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin/Y.Bai, et al.

That's how Chandra discovered that the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy is spinning rapidly.

Chandra is also key to studying explosive, fleeting cosmic events like supernovae or the collisions of dead stars.

wide snapshot of space with a yellow light circled and two breakouts zooming into the circle showing the area completely dark on August 19, then lighting up bright purple on August 26
Here Chandra made the first X-ray detection of a gravitational wave source — a collision of neutron stars called GW170817.X-ray: NASA/CXC/Northwestern U./W. Fong & R. Margutti et al. & NASA/GSFC/E. Troja et al.; Optical:NASA/STScI

The telescope clearly captured the X-ray emissions of a neutron-star collision in 2017. It was the first — and, so far, only — time that anyone had seen the light from a violent cosmic collision that sent gravitational waves (ripples in space-time) through Earth.

Scientists expect to discover thousands more such mysterious flash-in-a-pan events with the advent of the Rubin Observatory, which is set to begin scanning the entire southern sky next year.

Rubin will open an entirely new field of astronomy.

supernova remnant bright pink circular bubble in space with a dark blue halo and green-yellow strands like spokes from a blue dot at its center

When Rubin discovers an explosion unfolding rapidly in the distant universe, telescopes worldwide will have to turn their lens to capture the phenomenon in visible light, infrared, radio, gamma rays, and X-rays. Without Chandra, a piece of the puzzle will be missing.

Losing Chandra would be "a devastating blow" and "a disaster" for X-ray astronomy, astrophysicists said after the budget announcement, according to

NASA had to trim down somewhere.

milky way center with glowing purple and orange clouds peppered with bright white lights in black and purple space
A mosaic of the center of the Milky Way, using data from Chandra (shown in orange, green, and purple) and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa (gray).X-ray: NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT

Congress put a cap on its spending for 2024 and 2025, slashing its science budget by half a billion dollars while the agency invests more in its Artemis moon program.

In the astrophysics division, most missions escaped the cuts this year. In fact, plans for the ambitious alien-life-hunting Habitable Worlds Observatory for the 2040s got a boost. To offset that, NASA proposed a 5% cut to Hubble's budget and the extreme cuts to Chandra.

NASA's budget document suggested Chandra should scale down to "minimal operations."

long thick blue-purple trails streak across space behind a galaxy
Chandra captured the two tails of superheated gas (in blue) that this galaxy leaves behind as it barrels through space at 1.5 million miles per hour.X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama, Huntsville/M. Sun et al.; H-&alpha: ESO/MUSE; Optical/IR: NASA/STScI/HST

The document said the spacecraft has degraded over time, requiring more intense management to keep its temperatures low enough to operate. That complicates scheduling and increases mission costs beyond what NASA can afford, the document says.

Patrick Slane, director of the Chandra X-ray Center, took issue with that explanation.

supernova remnant in space clumpy colorful textured bubble with shades of red orange blue yellow green purple white
Chandra revealed mysterious clumps throughout the Tycho supernova remnant.X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al; Optical: DSS

In a letter to Chandra astronomers, he wrote that "there has been only one instance in which the cost has increased to help manage temperatures," and that was a 1% increase in costs so the project could hire two additional people for the flight team.

"I'm unclear whether I still have a job in October, or whether I can keep it one more year," McDowell said.

wide view of hundreds of galaxies in space with two separate transparent clouds of pink in the center of the image, each flagged by an outer blue cloud

If the current budget proposal holds, and Chandra has to begin its end when the 2025 fiscal year starts in October, that will likely lead to layoffs.

That's another crisis for X-ray astronomy. If Chandra ends, many jobs in the field will disappear until NASA launches its next major space-based X-ray telescope, Lynx, in about a decade at the earliest.

"There are just simply not going to be people who can do this," X-ray astronomer David Pooley told USA Today.

Astronomers are pushing to save Chandra.

supernova remnant blue and pink veiny bubble in space

During April, Chandra is undergoing a review to assess its options within the new budget, including any possibilities for restructuring the mission to avoid its end.

Astronomers are taking the opportunity to push for NASA to amend its proposal, writing letters to NASA leadership.

NASA's 2025 budget won't be final until Congress approves it later this year.

cosmic cliffs of the carina nebula red brown cliff-shaped clouds in blue starry space peppered with white and pink stars
Chandra's data (pink) reveals over a dozen individual X-ray sources, mostly young stars, in the "Cosmic Cliffs" formation of the Carina Nebula.X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. Observ. Munich/T. Preibisch et al.; IR: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

"We will continue to strongly make the case for the continued full support of Chandra, which the astrophysics community recognizes as a highly functioning facility that provides transformational science and crucial support to many of NASA's primary astrophysics goals," Slane wrote.

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