The smallest objects on Earth are about a thousand times smaller than the humblest spider’s spider web, which may explain why they can still fool us when it comes to detecting their presence.

After all, small glass molecules are almost impossible to spot, whether in a tree or a t-shirt or even insecticide, the argument goes.

Now scientists have launched a major effort to determine what’s up with tiny atoms. For a better sense of the world and for their own survival, they’ll need to know what will happen in the smallest processes of nature. How can they — and the rest of us — learn?

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Microscopes — those exquisite devices that give us a greater understanding of the microscopic world — are unique among all instruments in that they can detect light. All other scientific tools work by trying to measure materials based on direct sunlight or atomic-force microscopy. Microscopes, on the other hand, can observe in infrared, ultraviolet, and even X-ray wavelengths. So, they can see molecules below a certain wavelength of light or measure how large an object, such as an insect, is from above.

Rather than sending a rocketful of chemicals or animals to search for creatures that can be observed through microscopes, scientists can use them to discover what they are seeing around them. What they’re seeing is much harder to put words to than what we’d assume. So, they use tools like the Aeolus spectrometer to extract information about temperature, pH, luminescence, and other properties of gases, and the Riker Chem-Spectrometer to look for light.

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The Aeolus Spectrometer is operated by the National Science Foundation and is one of the most powerful eyes at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful ever built. The Riker Chem-Spectrometer, meanwhile, is one of only 25 in the world and runs all the way up to 2.3 million times its built-in maximum power. Thanks to this strength, it can detect even tiny amounts of light. And, in theory, it could someday be run by our astronauts in space, which means we’re one step closer to overcoming the perennial potholes of communication and technology.

To learn how we might use these instruments, choose the photos above to jump into the fray.

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