SOFIA Highlights: Solar system

Noctilucent clouds forming in the mesosphere seen from International Space Station

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, has been used extensively to look many objects in the universe, from black holes to galaxies and even the Moon.

A decade ago, German researcher Heinz Hübers led a team to improve one of SOFIA’s infrared instruments – the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT – with a new laser technology. He realized that the upgrade would not only help to study the distant cosmos, it could also be used much closer to home.

Chart showing atomic carbon-to-silicon ratio for various objects

By Charles “Chick” Woodward, Kassandra Bell, and Joan Schmelz

Paper: The Coma Dust of Comet C/2013 US10 (Catalina): A Window into Carbon in the Solar System
Woodward, Charles E., et al., 2021/02, PSJ, , 2.

Pluto horizon showing atmosphere

By Kassandra Bell, Arielle Moullet, and Joan Schmelz

Paper: Haze in Pluto’s atmosphere: Results from SOFIA and Ground-based Observations of the 2015 June 29 Pluto Occultation
 M. J. Person et al., 2020, Icarus, in press.

Illustration of Moon with call-out showing water molecules

By Casey Honniball, Paul Lucey, and Joan Schmelz

Paper: Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA
C.I. Honniball, et al., Nature Astronomy 2020.

Researchers using SOFIA have made the first-ever detection of the water molecule (H2O) on the sunlit surface of the Moon. This discovery refines our understanding of the behavior of water and how volatile elements and compounds interact with airless bodies throughout the Solar System and beyond.

Illustration of a comet, ice grains and Earth’s oceans

By Darek Lis, Dominique Bockelée-Morvan, and Rolf Güsten

Paper: Terrestrial deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio in water in hyperactive comets
Lis et al., A&A 625, L5 (2019) doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201935554

Artist's impression of New Horizons approaching MU69

Scientists were already excited to learn this summer that New Horizons’ next flyby target – a Kuiper Belt object a billion miles past Pluto -- might be either peanut-shaped or even two objects orbiting one another. Now new data hints that 2014 MU69 might have orbital company: a small moon.

Artist’s depiction of Comet C/2012 K1

Comets are our most direct link to the earliest stages of the formation and evolution of the solar system. Only every few years is a new comet discovered that is making its first trip to the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud, a zone of icy objects enveloping the solar system. Such opportunities offer astronomers a chance to study a special class of comets.

Map of Triton's shadow across Earth

Researchers on the flying observatory SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, are preparing for a two-minute opportunity to study the atmosphere of Neptune’s moon Triton as it casts a faint shadow on Earth’s surface. This is the first chance to investigate Triton’s atmosphere in 16 years.

Infographic illustrating how SOFIA flew in MU69's shadow to study the environment around it

NASA’s airborne observatory, SOFIA, was in the right place at the right time to study the environment around a distant Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, which is the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Artist's illustration of the Epsilon Eridani system

NASA’s flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, recently completed a detailed study of a nearby planetary system. The investigations confirmed that this nearby planetary system has an architecture remarkably similar to that of our solar system.

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