Science Behind SOFIA

Infrared Astronomy

Orion in visible light

Orion in visible light

(Akira Fujii)

Studying the universe using only visible light results in a very limited view, as you can see from the two images on the right. Visible light -- the light you see with your eyes -- reveals only part of the universe. Astronomers observe many other types of "light" to expand our views of the universe. SOFIA is designed to observe the infrared universe.

Infrared energy is just one part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light, x-rays, radio waves and others.

Many objects in space emit almost all their energy at infrared wavelengths. Often, they are invisible when observed in ordinary visible light. In other cases, clouds of gas and dust in space block the light emitted by more distant objects, but allow infrared energy to reach our telescopes. In both cases, the only way to learn about other objects is to study the infrared light they emit.

Orion in the infrared

Orion in the Infrared


By studying all the energy emitted by these astronomical objects, astronomers can understand them much better. SOFIA is primarily designed for infrared astronomy, although it can also be used to study visible light.


SOFIA studies many different kinds of astronomical objects and phenomena, but some of the most interesting are:

  • Star birth and death
  • Formation of new solar systems
  • Identification of complex molecules in space
  • Planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system
  • Nebulae and dust in galaxies (or, Ecosystems of galaxies)
  • Black holes at the center of galaxies

SOFIA currently has eight instruments, five US-made and three German. The instruments — cameras, spectrometers, a photometer, and a focal plane imager — operate in the near-, mid- and far-infrared wavelengths, some better suited to studying a particular phenomena, while others are general purpose but capable of acquiring data simultaneously with another instrument.

Share This Page