SOFIA Airborne Telescope Heads South

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope has moved south to New Zealand for the next two weeks to take advantage of the Southern Hemisphere’s orientation.

The space agency said the airborne observatory would be utilizing its southern position to take advantage of studying celestial objects that are difficult or impossible to see in the northern sky. SOFIA is a telescope attached to a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft with an effective diameter of 100 inches. It provides astronomers with visible, infrared and sub millimeter spectrum views of the night sky.

Astronomers used SOFIA on its first New Zealand flight to observe the disk of gas and dust orbiting the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The airborne telescope was also able to take a peek at two dwarf galaxies and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds can be seen with the naked eye in the southern sky.

“SOFIA’s deployment to the Southern Hemisphere shows the remarkable versatility of this observatory, which is the product of years of fruitful collaboration and cooperation between the U.S. and German space agencies,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “This is just the first of a series of SOFIA scientific deployments envisioned over the mission’s planned 20-year lifetime.”

Astronomers will be using a far-infrared spectrometer known as the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) mounted on SOFIA to study interstellar gas and the life cycle of stars.

“The success of the GREAT spectrometer in addressing exciting scientific questions at far-infrared wavelengths was demonstrated during SOFIA’s earlier, Northern Hemisphere flights,” said Rolf Guesten of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and leader of the German researchers who developed the spectrometer. “Now, we are turning the instrument to new frontiers such as the Magellanic Clouds, including the Tarantula Nebula — that is the most active star-forming region known in the local group of galaxies.”

Pamela Marcum, the project scientists for SOFIA, said the results anticipated from these southern observations will further scientists’ understanding of star formation, stellar evolution and chemistry in the stellar clouds.

“The deployment exemplifies the synergistic relationship between SOFIA’s international partners, with NASA playing a crucial role in the planning and execution of the science observations,” Marcum said.

SOFIA received major upgrades back in December to its observatory and avionics systems. These upgrades will significantly improve the systems’ efficiency and operability.

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