SOFIA Highlights: Solar system

Artist's impression of New Horizons approaching MU69

Scientists were already excited to learn this summer that New Horizons’ next flyby target – a Kuiper Belt object a billion miles past Pluto -- might be either peanut-shaped or even two objects orbiting one another. Now new data hints that 2014 MU69 might have orbital company: a small moon.

Artist’s depiction of Comet C/2012 K1

Comets are our most direct link to the earliest stages of the formation and evolution of the solar system. Only every few years is a new comet discovered that is making its first trip to the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud, a zone of icy objects enveloping the solar system. Such opportunities offer astronomers a chance to study a special class of comets.

Map of Triton's shadow across Earth

Researchers on the flying observatory SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, are preparing for a two-minute opportunity to study the atmosphere of Neptune’s moon Triton as it casts a faint shadow on Earth’s surface. This is the first chance to investigate Triton’s atmosphere in 16 years.

Infographic illustrating how SOFIA flew in MU69's shadow to study the environment around this distant Kuiper Belt object.

NASA’s airborne observatory, SOFIA, was in the right place at the right time to study the environment around a distant Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, which is the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Composition of Ceres

New observations show that Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, does not appear to have the carbon-rich surface composition that space- and ground-based telescopes previously indicated.

Jupiter observed by FORCAST

For the first time since the twin Voyager spacecraft missions in 1979, scientists have produced far-infrared maps of Jupiter using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA. These maps were created from the researchers’ studies of the circulation of gases within the gas giant planet’s atmosphere.

Optical image of the June 23 Pluto occultation star field taken from AAS Press Officer Rick Fienberg's home observatory in New Hampshire.

On June 23, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observed the dwarf planet Pluto as it passed in front of a distant star. This event, known as an “occultation,” allowed scientific analysis of Pluto and its atmosphere by flying SOFIA at the right moment to an exact location where Pluto’s shadow fell on Earth.

SOFIA/GREAT [O I] spectrum at 4.7 THz (63 μm) superimposed on a picture of Mars

Atomic oxygen is a key component in regulation of energy and mass exchanges within the Martian atmosphere. Neutral atomic oxygen (O I) was detected in the Martian atmosphere at a frequency of 4.7 THz (63 μm) on 14 May 2014 using the high-frequency channel of the far-infrared heterodyne spectrometer GREAT (German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies; P.I. Rolf Güsten, Max Planck Institut für Radioastronomie) onboard SOFIA. The [O I] line was found in absorption against the Mars continuum with a high signal-to-noise ratio (see figures).

Diane Wooden

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) took off on a “target of opportunity” flight that included study of Comet ISON on Oct. 24, 2013. This was SOFIA's second opportunity to capture data on a comet, having previously studied Comet Hartley 2 in 2010. For the Comet ISON observations, the object was predicted to be very faint.

2011 occultation light curves

On June 23, 2011 SOFIA observed an occultation by dwarf planet Pluto of a comparably bright (V ~ +14) star using two instruments simultaneously: HIPO (High Speed Photometer for Occultations; P.I. = Ted Dunham, Lowell Observatory) and FDC (Fast Diagnostic Camera; P.I. = Jürgen Wolf, DSI). The results were published in Person et al. 2013, Astrophysical Journal 146, 83.