SOFIA Highlights: Solar system
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.
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.
In a special celestial event visible only from the Southern Hemisphere, Pluto passed directly between a distant star and the Earth on the morning of June 30, New Zealand time (June 29 in the U.S.). As the dwarf planet and its atmosphere were backlit by the star, this “occultation” caused a faint shadow of Pluto to move across the surface of Earth at more than 53,000 mph, creating a ripe opportunity to perform scientific analysis – if instruments and observers could be in the right place at the right time.