The Universities Space Research Association at Columbia, Md., has selected three astronomers to participate in the first scientific observations to be conducted by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that carries a 2.5-meter (98-inch) diameter airborne infrared telescope.
Naming researchers from the astronomy community is a milestone on SOFIA’s journey to become the most versatile airborne telescope in the world, said Eric Becklin, SOFIA chief scientific advisor. The flying observatory will begin its short science, or “first light” observations, early in the summer 2009 and will continue its program of celestial observations for the next 20 years, Becklin said.
“We are extremely pleased at the level of enthusiasm and the number and scope of the applications we received for the SOFIA short science program,” said Becklin. “The proposals we received set a high standard for future observation projects onboard SOFIA.”
David Neufeld of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., was selected to study the chemistry of warm interstellar gas using data obtained by the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT). The instrument is a spectrometer developed specifically for the SOFIA program by a consortium of German research institutes, led by Rolf Gasten at the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn, Germany. Neufeld will use data from GREAT to probe the chemistry of the warm gas by observing emissions from molecules, such as carbon monoxide (CO). The study will help researchers understand the nature of chemical reactions taking place in the warm gas, which is found around forming stars as well as other regions in the interstellar medium.
The other two researchers selected to participate in the “first light” flights, Mark Morris of the University of California at Los Angeles, and Paul Harvey of the University of Colorado, Boulder, will join the team using the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST), a mid-spectrum infrared camera developed by Terry Herter of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Morris will collaborate with the FORCAST team to study the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, a dynamic region of extreme gas densities and high-energy content. In the central region that spans a distance of 1,000 light years, the high concentration of molecular gas results in a high rate of massive star formation. The FORCAST instrument will be used to develop the clearest view of the hot dust in the region. Harvey will work with the FORCAST team to interpret observations of bright star-forming regions to determine the current and future imaging capabilities of the SOFIA telescope.
SOFIA observes radiation generated by cosmic objects across the widest wavelength range of any observatory, from 0.3 microns to 1.0 millimeters, spanning the visible, infrared, and sub-millimeter portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Missions typically will last between 10 and 12 hours, and the aircraft flies from 40,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km). Flying at these altitudes puts SOFIA’s infrared telescope above 99.8 percent of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere. This enables a greater range of observations in the infrared spectrum.
Following the first light observations, SOFIA will begin its “basic science” program in late 2009 with approximately 15 flights. Proposals for the basic science flights will be solicited in December 2008.
SOFIA is a joint program between NASA and the German Space Agency, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft-und Raumfahrt (DLR), Bonn, Germany. The SOFIA program is managed at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., and the aircraft is based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, Palmdale, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI) Stuttgart, Germany.