Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Astronomy from the Stratosphere: Results from NASA’s SOFIA Airborne Telescope

The left image shows the large-scale magnetic field along the polar direction of the disk of the starburst galaxy M82. The HAWC+ imaging polarimetric observations show, for the first time, a relatively hot dust magnetically aligned along the direction of the outflows. The right image shows a multi-wavelength view of the galaxy, with the blue x-ray revealing gas that has been heated by the violent outflow. Credits: Left: SOFIA/HAWC+/E. Lopez-Rodriguez Right: X-ray: NASA/CXC/JHU/D.Strickland; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA/The Hubble Heritage Team; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of AZ/C. Engelbracht

Astronomers from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, Northwestern University, and the University of Maryland were on hand at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., to discuss new scientific results describing how their studies of dust grain polarization and celestial magnetic fields are leading to a better understanding of star formation, theories about how gas cools in the interstellar medium, and how magnetic fields are creating stellar winds around black holes.

The science results were obtained using SOFIA, a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner fitted with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) infrared telescope. SOFIA is an international partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The flying observatory has a suite of seven different instruments – cameras and spectrometers – that are flown into the stratosphere to altitudes as high as 45,000 feet (13.7 km) on missions up to 10 hours in duration. This altitude puts the observatory above more than 99 percent of the Earth’s water vapor that blocks infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground. SOFIA’s ability to study mid- and far-infrared wavelengths (28-320 microns) provides data that cannot be obtained by any other current astronomical facility on the ground or in space, including those now under development.

“SOFIA’s unique suite of instruments provides researchers with the ability to gain new insights into the infrared universe,” said Kimberly Ennico Smith, SOFIA project scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “We are now seeing results from the most recent instrument to come on line, the new High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera (HAWC+), as well as the upgraded German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT/upGREAT). These tools are expanding our knowledge about how stars form, the impact of magnetic fields on these processes, and the chemical compounds that are the raw material for new stars.”

“SOFIA’s suite of new and upgraded instruments are now providing the astronomical community with unprecedented sensitivity and spatial resolution at mid- and far-infrared wavelengths,” said USRA’s Director of SOFIA Science Mission Operations Harold “Hal” Yorke. “We can now explore a wide range of science questions that cannot be examined anywhere else in the world.”

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center's facility in Palmdale, California.

Credit: NASA

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