On Wednesday 6th April the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) completed its first flight using the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) scientific instrument. GREAT is a high-resolution far-infrared spectrometer that finely divides and sorts light into component colours for detailed analysis.
While that in itself is more than clever enough, what’s equally impressive is the location of this observatory. SOFIA (which is the only operational airborne observatory) is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The observatory is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP aircraft carrying a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches.
Flying at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, above the water vapor in Earth’s lower atmosphere that blocks most infrared radiation from celestial sources, SOFIA conducts astronomy research not possible with ground-based telescopes.
Two of their targets on this flight were IC 342 (a spiral galaxy 11 million light years from Earth in the constellation Camelopardalis or “The Giraffe”), and the Omega Nebula (known as M17, 5,000 light-years away in Sagittarius).
The team captured and analyzed radiation from ionized carbon atoms and carbon monoxide molecules to probe the chemical reactions, motions of matter and flows of energy occurring in interstellar clouds. Astronomers have evidence such clouds in both IC 342 and M17 are forming numerous massive stars.
More detail (and images) on the NASA website