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NASA's Flying Observatory SOFIA to Explore Magnetic Universe and Beyond

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, is preparing for its 2018 observing campaign, which will include observations of celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions, comets, Saturn’s giant moon Titan and more.

This will be the fourth year of full operations for SOFIA, with observations planned between February 2018 and January 2019. Research flights will be conducted primarily from SOFIA’s home base at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Highlights from these observations include:

Image of polarization measurements capturing the structure of the magnetic field in the Orion star forming region.
Does New Horizons’ Next Target Have a Moon?

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 impression of New Horizons approaching MU69
Observations of a Comet’s First Passage through the Solar System Reveals Unexpected Secrets

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.

Artist’s depiction of Comet C/2012 K1
Catching the Shadow of a Neptunian Moon

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.

Map of Triton's shadow across Earth
Astronomy from 40,000 Feet and 43.5 Degrees South

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, completed its fourth set of observations from Christchurch, New Zealand. The team spent seven weeks operating from the U.S. Antarctic Program facility at Christchurch International Airport, enabling researchers onboard to observe celestial objects that are best studied from the Southern Hemisphere.

Image of the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy, taken with SOFIA's visible light guide camera while observing over New Zealand.
SOFIA In The Right Place At The Right Time to Study Next New Horizons Flyby 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.

Infographic illustrating how SOFIA flew in MU69's shadow to study the environment around this distant Kuiper Belt object.
SOFIA Arrives in New Zealand to Observe Southern Skies

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, on June 22 to conduct seven weeks of observing flights from the Southern Hemisphere.

SOFIA arrives in New Zealand
SOFIA Finds Cool Dust Around Energetic Active Black Holes

Researchers at the University of Texas San Antonio using observations from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, found that the dust surrounding active, ravenous black holes are much more compact than previously thought.

Illustration of thick ring of dust near the supermassive black hole of an active galactic nuclei
Understanding Star Formation in the Nucleus of Galaxy IC 342

An international team of researchers used NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, to make maps of the ring of molecular clouds that encircles the nucleus of galaxy IC 342. The maps determined the proportion of hot gas surrounding young stars as well as cooler gas available for future star formation. The SOFIA maps indicate that most of the gas in the central zone of IC 342, like the gas in a similar region of our Milky Way Galaxy, is heated by already-formed stars, and relatively little is in dormant clouds of raw material.

A near- and mid-infrared image of galaxy IC 342 from the Spitzer Space Telescope
SOFIA Undergoing Engine Maintenance

On April 12, during a test of SOFIA’s systems involving an engine run, an anomaly occurred calling into question the flight-worthiness of Engines 1 and 4. The SOFIA maintenance team is investigating this issue. In the interim, program management has made a decision to replace the engines with spare engines. The observatory will resume flights after safety and engineering checks are completed. This down time has resulted in the estimated loss of at least eight science flights.

SOFIA flying above California’s snowy Sierra Nevada range
SOFIA Confirms Nearby Planetary System is Similar to Our Own

NASA’s flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, recently completed a detailed study of a nearby planetary system. The investigations confirmed that this nearby planetary system has an architecture remarkably similar to that of our solar system.

Artist's illustration of the Epsilon Eridani system
Don’t Judge an Asteroid by its Cover: Mid-infrared Data from SOFIA Shows Ceres’ True Composition

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.

Composition of Ceres
NASA Flying Observatory Makes Observations of Jupiter Previously Only Possible from Space

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.

Jupiter observed by FORCAST
First Images Demonstrate the Capabilities of SOFIA’s New Instrument

This is the first polarization image from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy’s new infrared camera and polarimeter, known as the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-plus (HAWC+). Polarimeters measure the alignment of incoming light waves, enabling HAWC+ to map magnetic fields in star forming regions.

W3 star-forming region

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