January 17, 2011

Images Of Star Formation Captured By NASA Telescope

A NASA telescope carried in the rear of a modified 747 has managed to capture mid-infrared mosaic images of the Orion Nebula--a feat that no other observation device in the world can duplicate, the space agency reported during the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) device, which snapped the pictures, was designed specifically to record colors typically blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, according to a Monday article written by BBC News Science and Technology Reporter Jason Palmer.

"The images show the star-forming region in unprecedented clarity," Palmer added. "Further study could yield insight into stars that are just lighting up, one of astronomy's 'holy grails'."

According to a January 11 NASA press release, the images were captured by Cornell University's Terry Herter, principal investigator with the program. Herter used FORCAST (the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope) to obtain "new information about processes of star formation in and around the nebula Messier 42 in the constellation Orion"¦ during SOFIA's Short Science 1 observing program in December 2010," the space agency reported.

The images are available online at NASA's official SOFIA website.

"SOFIA's view combines images at mid-infrared wavelengths of 19.7 microns (green) and 37.1 microns (red)," officials from the US space agency said in their media release. "The latter wavelength cannot be accessed by any telescope on the ground or currently in space. Detailed structures in the clouds of star construction material can be seen, as well as warm clouds of dust and gas surrounding, and partly obscuring, a cluster of luminous newborn stars at upper right."

The 100 inch diameter reflecting telescope is a collaborative project operated by NASA and officials at DLR Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft-und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center), and modifications of the aircraft that house SOFIA and instillation of the observatory was completed at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems facility at Waco, Texas.

NASA says that the project was designed to complement the Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel and James Webb space telescopes, and it is expected to have a lifespan of 20 years. Over that time, the scientists working on the SOFIA project are hopeful that they can capture many more such images.

"There's a set of stars in there that are very newly born," Herter told Palmer on Monday. "The holy grail of astronomy has always been to find stars just turning on. One of the things we can do with SOFIA is look in detail at the earliest generations of stars."


Image 1: SOFIA mid-infrared mosaic image of the Messier 42 region from the Short Science 1 observing program, December 2010. (19 microns in green and 37 microns in red) (NASA/DLR/SOFIA/USRA/DSI/FORCAST Team)

Image 2: SOFIA's mid-infrared image of Messier 42 (right) with comparison images of the same region made at other wavelengths by the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and European Southern Observatory (middle). (Credits: Visible-light image: NASA/ESA/HST/AURA/STScI/O'Dell & Wong; Near-IR image: ESO/McCaughrean et al.; Mid-IR image: NASA/DLR/SOFIA/USRA/DSI/FORCAST Team)


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