PALMDALE – The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Program began its third season of science flights last week.
Managed in Palmdale, SOFIA is NASA’s next generation flying observatory and is fitted with a 2.5-meter (100-inch) diameter telescope that studies the universe at infrared wavelengths.
“[The Jan. 13] flight used the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) spectrometer to study the chemical composition and motions of gas in a star-forming region, a young star, and a supernova remnant,” stated Pamela Marcum, NASA’s SOFIA project scientist. “Observing at infrared wavelengths enables us to see through interstellar dust to record the spectral signatures of molecules in these regions. From this we can study the abundances of molecules and their formation process.”
Water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation, preventing a large section of the infrared spectrum from reaching ground-based observatories. SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747 Special Performance jetliner that flies at altitudes between 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km), above more than 99 percent of Earth’s atmospheric water vapor giving astronomers the ability to study celestial objects at wavelengths that cannot be seen from ground-based observatories.
“The flights in January will conclude SOFIA’s second annual observing series, known as Cycle 2, and the observatory will begin the Cycle 3 programs in March,” stated Erick Young, SOFIA’s observatory director. “Plans for Cycle 3 include 70 flights with more than 400 hours of science observations. The observations will span a broad range of astronomical topics, including the interstellar medium, star formation, stars, bodies in our solar system, and extrasolar planets.”
The observatory is expected to make a deployment to the Southern Hemisphere in June 2015, with science flights based out of Christchurch, New Zealand. Scientists will have the opportunity to observe areas of interest such as the Galactic Center and other parts of the Milky Way that are not visible from the Northern Hemisphere.
SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The aircraft is based at and the program is managed from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility in Palmdale.
For more information about SOFIA, visit http://www.nasa.gov/sofia.