SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft with a 100-inch telescope used to study the solar system and beyond by observing infrared light that can’t reach Earth’s surface.
What is infrared light? It’s light we cannot see with our eyes that is just beyond the red portion of visible light we see in a rainbow. It can be used to change your TV channels, which is how remote controls work, and it can tell us how hot things are.
Everything emits infrared radiation, even really cold objects like ice and newly forming stars! We use infrared light to study the life cycle of stars, the area around black holes, and to analyze the chemical fingerprints of complex molecules in space and in the atmospheres of other planets – including Pluto and Mars.
Above, is the highest-resolution image of the ring of dust and clouds around the back hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The bright Y-shaped feature is believed to be material falling from the ring into the black hole – which is located where the arms of the Y intersect.
The magnetic field in the galaxy M82 (pictured above) aligns with the dramatic flow of material driven by a burst of star formation. This is helping us learn how star formation shapes magnetic fields of an entire galaxy.
A nearby planetary system around the star Epsilon Eridani, the location of the fictional Babylon 5 space station, is similar to our own: it’s the closest known planetary system around a star like our sun and it also has an asteroid belt adjacent to the orbit of its largest, Jupiter-sized planet.
Observations of a supernova that exploded 10,000 years ago, that revealed it contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earth-sized planets!
Measurements of Pluto’s upper atmosphere, made just two weeks before our New Horizons spacecraft’s Pluto flyby. Combining these observations with those from the spacecraft are helping us understand the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.
A gluttonous star that has eaten the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the last 80 years, which may change the theory of how stars and planets form.
Molecules like those in your burnt breakfast toast may offer clues to the building blocks of life. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like these is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.
This map of carbon molecules in Orion’s Horsehead nebula (overlaid on an image of the nebula from the Palomar Sky Survey) is helping us understand how the earliest generations of stars formed. Our instruments on SOFIA use 14 detectors simultaneously, letting us make this map faster than ever before!
Pinpointing the location of water vapor in a newly forming star with groundbreaking precision. This is expanding our understanding of the distribution of water in the universe and its eventual incorporation into planets. The water vapor data from SOFIA is shown above laid over an image from the Gemini Observatory.
We captured the chemical fingerprints that revealed celestial clouds collapsing to form young stars like our sun. It’s very rare to directly observe this collapse in motion because it happens so quickly. One of the places where the collapse was observed is shown in this image from The Two Micron All Sky Survey.
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