NASA’s SOFIA Sees Into the Light

Sofia Gilmore-Montero, News Editor

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In February, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency’s (NASA) Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) began its observation campaign.  This is the fourth year that SOFIA has been fully operate. It is a collaboration between NASA, the Deutschen Zentrums für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR), the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI).  

SOFIA’s mission is to “help astronomers learn more about the birth of stars, the formation of planetary systems, the compositions and histories of comets and asteroids, the origin of complex molecules in space, how galaxies form and evolve, and the nature of the mysterious black holes lying at the centers of some galaxies including our own.”

The SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP Aircraft which carries a telescope with a diameter of 2.5 meters into the stratosphere.  It is the world’s largest airborne observatory. It’s flight crew is three members, its mission crew between two and six, and also flies between five and 15 observers and/or educators.  at 41,000 feet, its airspeed is Mach 08 (450 knots or 520 mph).

The SOFIA Science Center (SSC) is housed at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

On February 13th, the Driftwood met with Nicholas Veronico, the Manager of SOFIA Communications, and SOFIA’s Project Scientist Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith at the NASA Ames Research Center.  

Below are some of the questions that Ennico Smith answered in the interview.  

KES: Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith, SOFIA Project Scientist

NV: Nicholas Veronico, Manager of SOFIA Communications

SGM: Sofia Gilmore-Montero, Driftwood News Editor

SGM: From what I understand it is a DLR and NASA project?

KES: SOFIA is also unique by having a two-country funding structure. So we have NASA, the US space agency, and the DLR,, the German space agency.  This was a partnership that had been established a few decades ago. They had conceived together the notion of the flying observatory. The DLR contributes 20% and the USA 80%.  But we actually have an international user base. The astronomers who use SOFIA come from all continents, except for Antarctica at the moment… and are researchers around the world, government labs, university labs, trying to answer questions.

SGM: For people who don’t know much about astronomy, can you explain what infrared light is?

KES: Well, let’s come down one step further to what is infrared astronomy.  We see light reflected or emitted from objects… our eyes are attuned to see what we call visible light, but if you go to the doctor, they see with x-ray light or you go to the airport, the TSA uses microwave light.  So infrared is another part of the spectrum; it has lower wavelengths than red light, and so it is where our emission, our thermal, our heat, is emitted.


SGM: For people who don’t know much about astronomy, can you explain the benefits of using infrared astronomy?

KES: It also tells us how the molecules in the universe emit light or absorb light and we can identify molecules. So infrared light in astronomy is very powerful for understanding what things are made out of.  In our universe, you see the stars at night, but you also see the lack of stars; and they’re blocked by dust, and the size of the dust has a size that’s similar to the wavelength of light in the infrared, such that visible light will bounce off of it and scatter away and not penetrate, but because of this property of the size of the dust is on the range of the wavelength of light, infrared light can penetrate into it.  The earth’s atmosphere has molecules that absorb infrared light, so you if you were to look up at the sky with infrared eyes, you wouldn’t see anything it would be black. The molecule that does the most damage is water, and also carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. But we like water, right? Water is good. But if you want to do infrared astronomy, you have to go the highest mountains where it has the driest conditions, or you go to space and throw a satellite up there.  It turns out, if you fly an airplane, which is what SOFIA is, you can fly above the clouds, but more importantly, above the water vapor, just by going up to about 39,000 feet, you actually are above most of the earth’s water vapor and now you can see in the infrared. Infrared observations by astronomers allow you to probe deeply into the interstellar dust and see the birth of stars and the emission of radiation of from atoms changing from high state to low state.

SGM: How does SOFIA account for turbulence of the plane and how it might affect the data?

KES:  DLR designed the telescope in such a way that it can be floating with respect to the air place frame, so when the place is moving, the cause of turbulence, the telescope will move in the other direction to lock onto its target, the star or the nebula or the galaxy that we are looking at, so that from a data point of view, the object that we are looking at doesn’t move on the image camera.  The telescope has been isolated from the aircraft frame, and only during really bad turbulence does it really affect the telescope.

SGM: Is there anything that I did not ask you that I should have?

KES: We can move the telescope to intersect a latitude and longitude on the earth to observe something that is going on in that part of the sphere.  That comes in handy when there is something going on in the universe that can only be observed from that place. One in particular is, if you have an eclipse like we just had last August where the moon passed in front of the sun and blocked it out, well that same time of geometry occurs when you have a solar system object that passes in front of a distant star and blocks the starlight, it’s called an occultation; so SOFIA has done these occultations about once a year.  This past summer we observed the occultation of the New Horizons Pluto mission; they are going to their next object. We were looking at their next object, it has a name 2014MU69. We were sent out over the Pacific Ocean to measure this event…SOFIA is the only telescope that can be deployed over the ocean.

We also have a next instrument that can measure an aspect of light called polarization.  Polarization just means how the light has been scattered. The instrument on board can study this property of light and measure the dust and alignment of the dust. Then you go one step further and interpret the alignment of dust to infer the presence or absence of magnetic fields.  So now we’re using infrared to probe another phenomenon: we’re using light, which is electromagnetic energy, but we’re using it in the interaction with dust grains; and the dust grains are aligned, we can say how we get them aligned… by either pressure from a star that is giving off a lot of waves of force or it could be magnetic fields. We’ve been measuring the magnetic fields around our galactic center, the center of our Milky Way, which is a very unique environment.  We’re looking at magnetic fields in other galaxies, and we’re also look at magnetic fields of where stars are forming, because one of the interesting puzzles right now is the role that magnetic fields have in star formation to figure out whether they accelerate it or inhibit it. We presented some of those results in January, so that’s pretty neat.

NV: She has a picture of Lau’s Galactic Center in the folder I gave her. Do you want to talk about that?

KES: This is another result from the observatory.  It looks at the heart of the Milky Way, the galactic center, where the assessment has been that there is a super-massive black hole in the center of our galaxy.  The SOFIA detected this Circumnuclear Ring (CNR) of material, and we’re measuring the thermal emission from the dust, and we were also able to, with an instrument called the GREAT instrument, the German High-Resolution Spectrometer, actually measured the fact that the material is rotating, so we can measure the speed of the molecules and we were able to get a temperature.  It’s the closest black hole. Knowing what temperatures they have can give us a clue as to what reactions could be happening. We use the thermal emission from the infrared.

SGM: With the effort to make all information available in the USA, will the results of the observations from SOFIA be made public?   

KES: For NASA missions, all data is public.  For the professional telescopes, there is usually a proprietary period, a small amount of time usually a couple of months, up to a year at most, for which those who apply for time on the SOFIA to get their data and results in order.  The data then becomes accessible to the public after that proprietary period. This allows the researchers to get their results out to journals.

For those interested in the SOFIA aircraft, more information can be found at www.nasa.gov/SOFIA and www.sofia.usra.edu.  

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NASA’s SOFIA Sees Into the Light