SOFIA Begins First Series of Science Flights From Germany
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, will conduct its first ever series of science observations from Germany in February and March, 2021. Many of the observations seek to answer fundamental questions in astronomy, including how stars can transform galaxies and what is the origin of cosmic rays in the Milky Way galaxy.
SOFIA, a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, recently completed scheduled maintenance and telescope upgrades at Lufthansa Technik’s facility in Hamburg, Germany. Now, the observatory will take advantage of its proximity to science teams at the Max Planck Institute of Radio Astronomy in Bonn and the University of Cologne, which operate the instrument called German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT, to conduct research flights from the Cologne Bonn Airport.
“We're taking advantage of SOFIA’s ability to observe from almost anywhere in the world to conduct compelling astronomical investigations,” said Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This observing campaign from Germany is an excellent example of the cooperation between NASA and DLR that has been the strength of the SOFIA program for over 25 years.”
SOFIA regularly flies to Christchurch, New Zealand, to study objects only visible in the skies over the Southern Hemisphere, and completed one science flight from Germany in 2019. But this is the first time a multi-flight observing campaign will be conducted over European soil. Over the course of six weeks, SOFIA will conduct about 20 overnight research flights that will focus on high-priority observations, including several large programs that were rescheduled from spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With new COVID-19 safety procedures in place, SOFIA will use its GREAT instrument to search for signatures of celestial molecules, ions, and atoms that are key to unlocking some of the secrets of the universe.
The observations include:
How Stars Affect Their Surroundings
In stellar nurseries like Cygnus X, newborn stars can destroy the clouds in which they’re born. Researchers will use SOFIA to create a map of ionized carbon, a gas the young stars are heating, to better understand this process. Ionized carbon’s chemical fingerprint can determine the speed of the gas at all positions across the celestial clouds. The signal is so strong that it reveals critical details that are otherwise hidden from view deep inside natal clouds. The data may also help explain the source of the mysterious bubble-like structures that were detected by the Herschel Space Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope but have yet to be fully understood.
Searching for Clues About Cosmic Rays
The team will search for gases that can reveal the presence of cosmic rays, highly energetic charged particles that stream through our Milky Way galaxy. When a hydrogen atom combines with another element, such as argon or oxygen, simple molecules called hydrides are formed, some of which can be used to find cosmic rays. While cosmic rays can be detected directly within our solar system, astronomers know much less about their presence elsewhere in space. By measuring the concentration of hydride molecules, SOFIA’s observations will help researchers understand how common cosmic rays are in different parts of our galaxy, providing clues about the origin of these mysterious particles.
Understanding the Evolution of The Cigar Galaxy, or M82
SOFIA previously found that the Cigar galaxy's powerful wind, driven by the galaxy's high rate of star birth, is aligned along the magnetic field lines and transports a huge amount of material out of the galaxy. Now, researchers will study ionized carbon gas, which traces star formation, to learn how this intense star birth and wind are affecting the evolution of the galaxy.
SOFIA’s GREAT instrument works like a radio receiver. Scientists tune to the frequency of the molecule they’re searching for, like tuning an FM radio to the right station. The instrument can also look for changes in signals that provide insights into how stars affect their surroundings, similar to how a radar gun bounces a signal off a moving car to determine its speed.
SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California.
Funding Available for Archival Research
SOFIA is pleased to invite proposals for SOFIA Archival Research Programs (SARP), aimed at encouraging the use of SOFIA archival observations for impactful science.
This program will fund archival research projects primarily using SOFIA data to encourage the use of available SOFIA archival data in the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA). Two distinct types of proposals for the archival research program are solicited in this round:
Regular Proposals - Large programs requesting up to $150,000 per year, or more in exceptional cases, and lasting up to two years
Small Proposals - Targeted programs requesting up to $50,000 and lasting for one year
This call is open to all U.S. institutions. This complements the Astrophysics Data Analysis Program (ADAP) under the NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitation. Proposals are due February 12, 2021. Learn more here.
SOFIA Departs for Scheduled Maintenance
SOFIA departed for scheduled maintenance at Lufthansa Technik’s facility in Hamburg, Germany, on Sept. 29, 2020. Lufthansa Technik's 747SP specialists will perform scheduled inspections and maintenance in coordination with flight, aircraft and scientific personnel from NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center and Ames Research Center. Scheduled maintenance such as this is required for all aircraft, much like the regular servicing done on cars. Staff from the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) will also perform upgrades to the flying observatory's telescope. The maintenance is expected to be completed early next year.
SOFIA at the 237th AAS Virtual Meeting
The SOFIA Science Center is organizing the special session 'Assessing the Impact of Stellar Feedback' at the 237th AAS meeting (online). The oral session will be held on Tuesday January 12, from 4:10 pm to 5:40 pm (Eastern Time). More information here.
SOFIA Returns to Flight
NASA’s flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, has returned to science operations with a new series of flights designed to study the chemistry of galaxies.
SOFIA flights were suspended on March 19 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the resumption of flights out of SOFIA’s base at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, new procedures are in place to ensure the health and safety of staff while enabling the observations of celestial targets visible from the Northern Hemisphere. SOFIA started by flying two flights beginning Aug. 17, to allow the team time to evaluate and adjust the new procedures, and now plans to return to its regular observing schedule with about four flights each week.
"We are so thrilled to begin observations again and very thankful to the scientists, operations staff and pilots who are returning us to flight," said Margaret Meixner, SOFIA’s science mission operations director at the Universities Space Research Association. "In this flight series, SOFIA is studying the chemistry that influences the creation and evolution of galaxies across cosmic history. We cannot wait to see the data."
The team will explore distant galaxies to learn how black holes control the galaxies’ growth and how quickly stars form in them. To further understand how stars are born, the team will examine how magnetic fields affect the celestial clouds that incubate natal stars.
In June, SOFIA’s annual deployment to Christchurch, New Zealand was deemed not feasible given ongoing concerns related to the pandemic. Instead a new schedule was coordinated to take advantage of observing opportunities from California. New safety procedures are designed to meet NASA and Federal Aviation Administration requirements for safety and return to on-site work. New procedures include flying a minimal number of mission crew, social distancing and personal protective equipment for staff, and extra sanitation of the aircraft during and in-between flights.
Cycle 9 Calls for Proposals Formal Update on July 24
SOFIA’s Deployment to New Zealand Cancelled, New Flights to Resume
The leadership of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy reached a decision that the observatory’s annual deployment to Christchurch, New Zealand, is not feasible this year, given ongoing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A revised flight schedule is being coordinated to focus on high-priority celestial targets that can be studied from SOFIA’s base at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California.
The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) appointed Dr. Margaret Meixner as the Director of SOFIA’s Science Mission Operations, effective April 13, 2020. As director, Meixner will provide scientific, technical and management guidance to SOFIA. She will work in partnership with the German SOFIA Institute (DSI), and in close collaboration with NASA, to maximize the scientific productivity and impact of the observatory.
Prior to joining USRA, Meixner held several leadership positions at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), including Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope and Instruments Division Deputy. Since 2016, she has been Community Co-Chair of the Origins Space Telescope Science and Technology Definition Team. She is also a Principal Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins University, and a member of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee.
A recipient of several awards and honors, Meixner was named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2015 and recognized for her leadership in infrared instrumentation for astronomy. She was also awarded the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Science Achievement Award in 2009, and the 1994 Annie Jump Cannon Special Commendation of Honor.
Meixner earned her B.S. degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics in 1987 from the University of Maryland, College Park, and received her master and doctorate degrees in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley.
Cycle 8 Selection Results Released
View the Cycle 8 Selection Results here.
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The Cycle 8 Call for Proposals had an outstanding response. For the U.S. and German queue combined, the SOFIA Science Center received 238 observing proposals. Of these, 47 proposals were accepted as Legacy, Priority 1, and Priority 2, with an additional 44 proposals accepted as Priority 3 and Survey programs (see entire list here). Furthermore, five archival research proposals were received and one was accepted.
The selected Legacy program (PI Neufeld) will span two observing cycles; two additional Legacy proposals were selected as pilot programs for Cycle 8 (PIs Lopez Rodriguez and Stephens). The data will have no exclusive-use period, and hence the community will have immediate access to these high-impact datasets.
Legacy Program - HyGAL: Characterizing the Galactic Interstellar Medium with Hydrides
PI: David Neufeld (Johns Hopkins University) and Peter Schilke (University of Cologne)
Proposal ID 08_0038
Abstract Excerpt: By means of absorption-line spectroscopy towards 22 background Terahertz continuum sources widely distributed within the Galactic plane, we will obtain robust measurements of the column densities of six hydride molecules (OH+, H2O+, ArH+, SH, OH, and CH) and two key atomic constituents (C+ and O) within the diffuse ISM. These observations will allow us to address several related questions: (1) What is the distribution function of H2 fraction in the ISM? (2) How does the density of low-energy cosmic-rays vary within the Galaxy? (3) What is the nature of interstellar turbulence (e.g. typical shear or shock velocities), and what mechanisms lead to its dissipation?
The anticipated results are (1) a determination of the distribution function for the H2 fraction in the Galaxy, and how it varies; (2) a determination of the cosmic-ray ionization rate and how it varies; (3) an improved characterization of turbulence in the diffuse ISM, and its dissipation; (4) the provision of enhanced data products that will serve as a legacy for future ISM studies.
Pilot Legacy Program - FIELDMAPS: Filaments Extremely Long and Dark: A Magnetic Polarization Survey
PI: Ian Stephens (Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Proposal ID 08_0186
Abstract Excerpt: Molecular gas in a galaxy generally follows the spiral arms. In the Milky Way, the densest of this molecular gas can form long, velocity-coherent filaments parallel and in close proximity to the Galactic plane. These dense filaments make up the 'skeleton' of molecular gas of the Milky Way - akin to the dark dust lanes seen in nearby spiral galaxies - and thus have been called 'bones.' For the early stages of star formation, these bones represent the largest star-forming structures in the Galaxy, and previous studies suggest that magnetic fields are critical to their formation. Our pilot survey of 2 bones show that HAWC+ can detect polarization over large angular extents with modest integration time. To understand how gas collects in the magnetized spiral potential, we propose a legacy survey to probe the magnetic fields across the entire extent of 8 additional bones (for a total of 10). We will use these observations in combination with new magnetohydrodynamical simulations of galactic formation of bones to investigate (1) the role of magnetic fields in the formation of bones, (2) how the field varies between arm and inter-arm bones, and (3) whether or not fields bend into filaments to build gas flows to the largest gravitational potential well.
Pilot Legacy Program - SOFIA Heralds a New Era of Measuring the Magnetic Fields of Galaxies
PI: Enrique Lopez-Rodriguez (SOFIA Science Center)
Proposal ID 08_0012
Abstract Excerpt: Our team has made important and unexpected discoveries about the role of the magnetic fields in nearby galaxies. We have found a) that galaxies typically host large-scale and coherent magnetic fields along the spiral arms, b) magnetic field strengths of ~uG with similar contributions from the random and ordered field components, and c) magnetic fields oriented along galactic outflows that are likely responsible for magnetizing the IGM. To date, these results have mostly emerged from single wavelength regimes: radio synchrotron polarization tracing the large-scale field structure in the ionized gas, and optical studies to investigate the effect of scattering and/or extinction by the ISM. These studies access the field on vastly different spatial scales and within different ISM phases. However, the effect of magnetic fields in dense regions of the ISM, outflows, and the ISM of merging galaxies are still poorly described. SOFIA/HAWC+ is key to provide a complete picture using far-infrared (FIR) polarimetric observations. This Joint Legacy Program aims to construct a comprehensive empirical picture of the magnetic field strength and structure in multiphase ISM of galaxies. Using HAWC+, we will conduct a FIR polarimetric survey covering the full disk of nearby galaxies.
Data Released for First Completed Legacy Program
Data Released for SOFIA's First Completed Legacy Program
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