Science Results Archive 2011

A new image from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) shows a complex distribution of interstellar dust and stars in the Orion nebula. Interstellar dust, composed mostly of silicon, carbon and other heavy elements astronomers refer to generically as “metals,” plus some ice and organic molecules, is part of the raw material from which new stars and planets are forming.

The opportunity to fly on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is limited to mission critical staff, such as engineers, scientists, and support and safety crew, as well as guest investigators. Thus, seats on the world’s largest airborne observatory are extremely limited.

A new image from NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, provides the highest resolution mid-infrared image taken to-date of the massive star formation region in our galaxy known as W40.

“SOFIA Flight 86 must rank as the most exciting observing nights that I have ever done!” said Graham M. Harper, an astrophysicist from the School of Physics, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, after his all-night expedition on Nov. 9/10. That's an impressive statement from a researcher who focuses on stellar activity in cool stars and routinely uses a variety of ground-based and space telescopes to capture energy ranging from the ultraviolet to centimeter radio wavelengths.

The Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) landed at NASA's Ames Research Center for tours by NASA employees, members of the media and the general public. Housing a 17-ton telescope assembly, the highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft is the largest flying telescope in the world. More than 6500 people visited SOFIA during her visit.

Deployment Update

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, departed Joint Base Andrews, Md., on Sept. 23, 2011 at 3:15 p.m. local time, en route to its home base at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Center in Palmdale, Calif. The flight to Palmdale concludes SOFIA's first international deployment.

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that carries a telescope with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) reflecting mirror that conducts astronomy research not possible with ground-based telescopes.

Deployment Update

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne telescope arrived at Joint Base Andrews, Md., the evening of Sept. 21. Earlier that day, the aircraft departed Stuttgart, Germany, where it had been displayed to the public and guests of the German SOFIA Institute.

Deployment Update

SOFIA was flown from Cologne, Germany, home of the German Aerospace Center, to the Stuttgart Airport, home of the nearby German SOFIA Institute located at the University of Stuttgart on the morning of Sept. 19, 2011. No science was conducted during the short flight, approximately 290 km (180 miles) between the two cities.

SOFIA Mission Manager’s Update

On Sept. 16, at 10:10 a.m. local time, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, lifted off from its base at Palmdale, Calif., flying east en route to Cologne, Germany, for its first international deployment. After conducting astronomical research during the flight, SOFIA landed at the Cologne-Bonn Airport, shortly before 7 a.m. local time.

SOFIA Mission Manager’s Update

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has completed an avionics upgrade and is currently undergoing inspection and maintenance of its telescope assembly. Should the observatory’s mirror be cleared for flight and preflight operations proceed with no anomalies this week, SOFIA will depart for the German Aerospace Center’s annual open house to be held Sept. 18, in Cologne, Germany.

On June 23, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observed the dwarf planet Pluto as it passed in front of a distant star. This event, known as an “occultation,” allowed scientific analysis of Pluto and its atmosphere by flying SOFIA at the right moment to an exact location where Pluto’s shadow fell on Earth.

On June 23, 2011 SOFIA observed an occultation by dwarf planet Pluto of a comparably bright (V ~ +14) star using two instruments simultaneously: HIPO (High Speed Photometer for Occultations; P.I. = Ted Dunham, Lowell Observatory) and FDC (Fast Diagnostic Camera; P.I. = Jürgen Wolf, DSI). The results were published in Person et al. 2013, Astrophysical Journal 146, 83.

Using Ustream, SOFIA Program Scientist Pamela Marcum and SOFIA Public Affairs Officer Nicholas A. Veronico reviewed the SOFIA program to date during a 45-minute webchat. The webchat featured a short video describing the SOFIA modifications followed by Marcum's explanation of how the flying observatory works and the benefits of flying an infrared telescope.

NASA has selected six teachers to work with scientists aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during research flights in May and June. This is the first team of educators selected to participate in SOFIA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program.

Studying the universe at infrared wavelengths enables astronomers to detect stars and planets forming, to view the supermassive black holes at the center of our galaxy through obscuring clouds of interstellar dust, to understand the life cycle of organic substances in space, and to determine the chemical composition of comets, asteroids, and planetary atmospheres.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, completed its first science flight using the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) scientific instrument on Wednesday, April 6. GREAT is a high-resolution far-infrared spectrometer that finely divides and sorts light into component colors for detailed analysis.

During the past year SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, achieved the program’s goals and passed the program’s milestones at a pace almost as fast as the observatory can fly.

At the end of 2009, SOFIA’s engineering team succeeded in flying the observatory for more than an hour with the telescope cavity door fully open. Having achieved this success, 2010 began with additional in-flight testing of the telescope cavity door and its software system.

The German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT, instrument was successfully mounted on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, airborne observatory for the first time on Jan. 21, 2011. A number of tests will follow before the first scientific flights of SOFIA with GREAT take place in April 2011.

"Thanks to all who participated in the project over the years and contributed to the completion of the instrument," said Rolf Guesten, principal investigator for GREAT at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.

A mid-infrared mosaic image from SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) offers new information about processes of star formation in and around the nebula Messier 42 in the constellation Orion. The image data were acquired using the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, or FORCAST, (principal investigator Terry Herter, Cornell University) during SOFIA’s Short Science 1 observing program in December 2010.

Fifteen years after its final flight, veterans of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, or KAO, gathered at NASA’s Ames Research Center last Nov. 10 to witness the opening of a time capsule.

The KAO is a highly modified Lockheed C-141A cargo transport fitted with a 36-inch telescope. The observatory was based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., for operations that began in 1974 and lasted 22 years before the flying observatory was retired in 1995.