2015 Southern Hemisphere Science Flights Begun By NASA’s SOFIA

For the next five weeks, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), will work from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Program facility at Christchurch International Airport. The first of 15 planned Southern Hemisphere science flights took place June 19, out of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Flying from New Zealand allows SOFIA to research celestial objects that are more easily observed, or can only be observed, from southern latitudes.

“SOFIA’s 2013 deployment to New Zealand and the resulting observations were of great scientific value,” said Eddie Zavala, SOFIA program manager. “Our research staff and guest investigators have been looking forward to building on that success with our return to the Southern Hemisphere this month.”

During this mission, five cameras and spectrographs will be used.

The latter three will be utilized in ensemble during one flight to observe a stellar occultation by Pluto.

“Many of the observations planned for this deployment are aimed at studying the formation of massive stars,” said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA’s Project Scientist. “Massive protostars are rare, so even the nearest examples are more than a thousand light years away. SOFIA’s large telescope enables astronomers to resolve distant groups of such stars, allowing uniquely detailed observations of them and the material that surrounds them.”

“We are also interested in the other end of the stellar life cycle,” noted Dana Backman, astronomer and manager of SOFIA’s Outreach programs. “During late stages, many stars develop intense winds, ejecting large amounts of their material into surrounding space. As those winds cool, some of the gas condenses into dust particles. The gas and dust are recycled into the interstellar medium, adding to the raw material for subsequent generations of stars and planets. Researchers want a more complete understanding of how that all happens.”

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. SOFIA is based on a Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft that has been modified to include a large door in the aft fuselage that can be opened in flight to allow a 2.5 meter diameter reflecting telescope access to the sky. This telescope is designed for infrared astronomy observations in the stratosphere at altitudes of about 41,000 feet (12 km).

Illustration: NASA/SOFIA/USRA/ASP/N. Veronico