Astronomy from the Stratosphere: Results from NASA’s SOFIA Airborne Telescope

Astronomers from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, Northwestern University, and the University of Maryland were on hand at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., to discuss new scientific results describing how their studies of dust grain polarization and celestial magnetic fields are leading to a better understanding of star formation, theories about how gas cools in the interstellar medium, and how magnetic fields are creating stellar winds around black holes.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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NASA’s Flying Observatory Expanding New Frontiers in the Solar System and Beyond

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, will soon be studying Neptune’s giant moon, Triton, and following-up on Hubble’s recent sighting of water plumes on Jupiter’s moon Europa. According to recently completed plans for the 2017 observing campaign, about half of the research time for SOFIA will run the gamut from studies of planets to observations of comets and asteroids orbiting other stars and supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies beyond our own.

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Fireworks for birth of massive stars

An international scientific team led by Dr. Alessio Caratti o Garatti from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (Ireland) for the first time observed and analyzed an outburst from a high-mass young stellar object that was caused by material accreting onto the star.

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SOFIA Detects Collapsing Clouds Becoming Young Suns

Researchers on board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, observed the collapse of portions of six interstellar clouds on their way to becoming new stars that will be much larger than our sun.

When a gas cloud collapses on itself, the cloud’s own gravity causes it to contract and the contraction produces heat friction. Heat from the contraction eventually causes the core to ignite hydrogen fusion reactions creating a star.

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