What’s Inside SOFIA? High Flying Instruments

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Our flying observatory, called SOFIA, carries a 100-inch telescope inside a Boeing 747SP aircraft. Having an airborne observatory provides many benefits.

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It flies at 38,000-45,000 feet – above 99% of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere that blocks infrared light from reaching the ground! 

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It is also mobile! We can fly to the best vantage point for viewing the cosmos. We go to Christchurch, New Zealand, nearly every year to study objects best observed from the Southern Hemisphere. And last year we went to Daytona Beach, FL, to study the atmosphere of Neptune’s moon Triton while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

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SOFIA’s telescope has a large primary mirror – about the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Large telescopes let us gather a lot of light to make high-resolution images!

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But unlike a space-based observatory, SOFIA returns to our base every morning.

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Which means that we can change the instruments we use to analyze the light from the telescope to make many different types of scientific observations. We currently have seven instruments, and new ones are now being developed to incorporate new technologies.

So what is inside SOFIA? The existing instruments include:

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Infrared cameras that can peer inside celestial clouds of dust and gas to see stars forming inside. They can also study molecules in a nebula that may offer clues to the building blocks of life

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…A polarimeter, a device that measures the alignment of incoming light waves, that we use to study magnetic fields. The left image reveals that hot dust in the starburst galaxy M82 is magnetically aligned with the gas flowing out of it, shown in blue on the right image from our Chandra X-ray Observatory. This can help us understand how magnetic fields affect how stars form.

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…A tracking camera that we used to study New Horizon’s post-Pluto flyby target and found that it may have its own moon

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…A spectrograph that spreads light into its component colors. We’re using one to search for signs of water plumes on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and to search for signs of water on Venus to learn about how it lost its oceans

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…An instrument that studies high energy terahertz radiation with 14 detectors. It’s so efficient that we made this map of Orion’s Horsehead Nebula in only four hours! The map is made of 100 separate views of the nebula, each mapping carbon atoms at different velocities.

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…And we have an instrument under construction that will soon let us study how water vapor, ice and oxygen combine at different times during planet formation, to better understand how these elements combine with dust to form a mass that can become a planet.

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Our airborne telescope has already revealed so much about the universe around us! Now we’re looking for the next idea to help us use SOFIA in even more new ways. 

Discover more about our SOFIA flying observatory HERE

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