Categories: Observatories

SOFIA Sees First Light

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Flying SOFIA has opened her eyes! The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint program by NASA and the German Aerospace Center made its first observations on May 26. The new observatory uses a modified 747 airplane to carry a German-built 2.5 meter (100 inch) reflecting telescope. “With this flight, SOFIA begins a 20-year journey that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth and space-borne observatories,” said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. “It clearly sets expectations that SOFIA will provide us with “Great Observatory”-class astronomical science.”

Scientists are now processing the first light data, and say that preliminary results show the sharp, “front-line” images that were predicted for SOFIA. They reported the stability and precise pointing of the German-built telescope met or exceeded the expectations of the engineers and astronomers who put it through its paces during the flight.

Infrared image of Jupiter from SOFIA’s First Light flight composed of individual images at wavelengths of 5.4 (blue), 24 (green) and 37 microns (red) made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera. A recent visual-wavelength picture of approximately the same side of Jupiter is shown for comparison. The white stripe in the infrared image is a region of relatively transparent clouds through which the warm interior of Jupiter can be seen. (Visual image credit: Anthony Wesley)

“The crowning accomplishment of the night came when scientists on board SOFIA recorded images of Jupiter,” said USRA SOFIA senior science advisor Eric Becklin. “The composite image from SOFIA shows heat, trapped since the formation of the planet, pouring out of Jupiter’s interior through holes in its clouds.”

Faint specks of starlight are reflected by the 100-inch (2.5 meter) primary mirror on SOFIA. Credit: NASA/Tom Tschida

Cornell University built the primary instrument on the telescope, the Faint Object infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, also known as FORCAST. FORCAST is unique in that it records energy coming from space at infrared wavelengths between 5 and 40 microns – most of which cannot be seen by ground-based telescopes due to blockage by water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere. SOFIA’s operational altitude, which is above more than 99 percent of that water vapor, allows it to receive 80 percent or more of the infrared light accessible to space observatories, so FORCAST captures in minutes images that would require many hour-long exposures by ground-based observatories

Composite infrared image of the central portion of galaxy M82, from SOFIA’s First Light flight, at wavelengths of 20 (blue), 32 (green) and 37 microns (red). The middle inset image shows the same portion of the galaxy at visual wavelengths. The infrared image views past the stars and dust clouds apparent in the visible-wavelength image into the star-forming heart of the galaxy. The long dimension of the inset boxes is about 5400 light years. (Visual image credit: N. A. Sharp/ NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The first light flight took off from SOFIA’s home base at the Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. The in-flight personnel consisted of an international crew from NASA, the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., Cornell University and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) in Stuttgart. During the six-hour flight, at altitudes up to 35,000 feet, the crew of 10 scientists, astronomers, engineers and technicians gathered telescope performance data at consoles in the aircraft’s main cabin.

More info on SOFIA.

Source: NASA

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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