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13 NASA Discoveries That Changed Science Textbooks

Without NASA, we would know a whole lot less about the universe. These major discoveries changed our perception of space—and our place in it.

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Galaxy in space, beauty of universe, black hole. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.NASA images/Shutterstock

The universe has been around for billions of years

In 1925, Edwin Hubble blew everyone’s mind when he showed that the universe was bigger than just our solar system. He did it again in 1929 when he proved it was still expanding and, therefore, had a beginning. The space telescope that bears his name and launched into the Earth’s orbit in 1990 has allowed scientists to view distant galaxies and calculate just how long how our universe has been around: almost 14 billion years, according to NASA. On the other hand, scientists are still trying to figure out the answers to these 14 baffling mysteries about the universe.

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Deep Universe - Dark Matter - Cosmic Clouds - Abstract IllustrationGiroScience/shutterstock

Dark energy is speeding up the universe’s expansion

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Hubble Space Telescope when it comes to our understanding of the universe. Another of its critical discoveries: Dark energy isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi. In fact, not only does dark energy very much exist—comprising about 70 percent of all the energy in the universe—but, adds NASA, it also makes the universe expand ever-faster as time goes on.

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hole black space way fiction hydrogen nebula galaxy white earth cloud cosmic atmosphere explosion meteorite deep star concept - stock image. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock

Supermassive black holes exist

Black holes were another hypothesis straight out of science-fiction books until the Hubble telescope helped prove the existence of what NASA calls “exotic objects” with “large amounts of mass near their centers” in 1994. NASA discovered one of these supermassive black holes hiding out in a huge galaxy called Messier about 87,55 million light-years away; it measured around 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun. Just this past spring, the Event Horizon Telescope and seven others captured an image of this black hole and its shadow—for the first time ever. Supermassive black holes, with their strong gravitational pull, are thought to be at the center of most large galaxies, including our own. While their existence is now a fact, here are some science myths that have been proven wrong.

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Pluto - High resolution 3D images presents planets of the solar system. This image elements furnished by NASAVadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

Pluto probably has an ocean

Although the presence of a large body of water on the surface of the icy dwarf planet has been suggested—if not yet outright confirmed—by images from the NASA mission New Horizons, it’s caused quite a stir among scientists. They’ve called it unexpected and say that it’s opened up the possibility that oceans could be common on other frigid space bodies as well, reports PRI. So what, you ask? Remember: Where there’s water, there’s also the possibility of life, past or present.

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Solar System - Pluto. It is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond Neptune. It is the largest known dwarf planet in the Solar System. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.NASA images/Shutterstock

Pluto is a dwarf planet

It’s common knowledge now, but not too long ago, Pluto still enjoyed full planet status in our solar system—a status that lasted a mere 76 years. To what does it owe its downgrade? Hubble again, along with data collected from an observatory in Hawaii. In fact, Hubble’s cameras have helped us understand a great deal about planets and exoplanets—and it’s even aided in mapping the surface of Mars and some asteroids. Don’t miss these 24 amazing facts you didn’t know about NASA.

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Mars - High resolution beautiful art presents planet of the solar system. This image elements furnished by NASAVadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

Life may have existed on Mars

In 2018, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover made two astonishing discoveries: It found organic matter embedded in some of the Red Planet’s rocks, as well as methane in its atmosphere. In our never-ending quest to determine whether or not Earth supports the only life in the universe, the findings on Mars gave researchers significant hope that it may have once been home to some form of ancient life.

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Jupiter, Elements of this image furnished by NASAmanjik/shutterstock

Jupiter’s rings are made of dust

In 1989, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft was sent off to study Jupiter, which it circled 34 times during its 14-year mission. It made many exciting discoveries about the planet—including that fact that its ring system was made up of dust from meteors crashing into its four inner moons. It also showed that Jupiter’s outer ring was actually two rings. Even such “small” revelations help scientists piece together how our universe works. While this NASA discovery may not impact our day-to-day life, others do. For example, these are 15 everyday items you had no idea were made by NASA.

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Clean horizon of Earth from space - landscape exteriorMedia Union/shutterstock

Chlorofluorocarbons are bad for the ozone layer

Before the words climate change were part of our daily lexicon, starting in 1986 we talked about the danger of holes in the ozone layer—the atmospheric shield that protects us from harmful radiation emanating from the sun. And it was NASA that developed a method for measuring ozone depletion and attached instruments for that purpose to the space shuttle. This revolutionary work eventually paved the way for an international treaty in 1989 that banned ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

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Starfield with The Double Cluster (Cadwell 14) in the constellation of Perseus formed by two open clusters NGC 884 and NGC 869.Mihai-Bogdan Lazar/Shutterstock

How stars are born

“Stars are born within clouds of dust…scattered throughout most galaxies,” according to NASA. And although we can see the old guard twinkling up there in the night sky, for a long time we didn’t know much about the places where they first emerged. The Spitzer Space Telescope, with its infrared sensors, cut through the haze and sent pictures back to Earth of the molecular hydrogen cloud Rho Ophiuchi and its 300 baby stars, allowing astronomers to study how they formed. Don’t miss these other astronomy facts you never learned in school.

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Blue Stanfield - Elements of this Image Furnished by NASAAphelleon/Shutterstock

The universe is much bigger than we thought

The planets and sun in our solar system once comprised our entire understanding of what existed, but NASA proved that there’s so much more to the universe. In partnership with many scientists and other space agencies, NASA has been hard at work developing a map of everything there is, and it’s so much more vast than we imagined even 100 years ago: an estimated 200 billion galaxies, each containing its own incalculable number of planetary systems.

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Solar system. Elements of this image furnished by NASAVadim Sadovski/shutterstock

There’s more to discover in our own solar system

Closer to home, NASA has helped discover 150 moons in our solar system—and expects to one day find more. Thanks to Spitzer, scientists also spent ten years compiling the world’s most complete map of our Milky Way galaxy, which includes its central bar of stars, its spirally structure, its asteroids, its bubbles, and even its edges. Here are 13 mysteries scientists are still trying to figure out about our own moon.

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Crowd of anonymous blurred people at a trade show r.classen/shutterstock

Humans are changing the Earth—rapidly

Loss of forests and shrinking lakes are phenomena known to us. But with astronauts taking photos of our planet from space since the early Mercury missions in the 1960s—some 400,000 in all—we have an incredible record of all the ways our planet has been altered due to human activity. “These images yielded unprecedented insights into the changes occurring on Earth’s surface,” according to NASA. This science allows us to understand the pressures of things like climate change and attempt to figure out how humans might work to mitigate the damage we’ve caused.

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Fuego Volcano erupting, seen from Acatenango volcano, GuatemalaROSITO/Shutterstock

There are volcanoes in space

Once upon a time, we believed that Earth was the only place with volcanic activity. In 1979, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft happened to be passing by Jupiter’s moon Io and snapped some pictures. It ended up recording plumes of gas emanating from its surface. This was the first evidence not only of a space volcano but of one that was actually erupting in real-time. It gave scientists insight into how land and worlds are formed—something that’s essential to truly understanding our planet and the universe. If you think you know everything about NASA, think again.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.