NASA-DLR SOFIA to provide details of galaxy

Thursday, August 26, 2010, 17:19 by Tech Correspondent

NASA’s joint program with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), called SOFIA, is all set to provide answers to questions about our galaxy.

nasa dlr sofia aircraft photo

Photo: The Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA aircraft

SOFIA, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a 747 SP aircraft that has been modified for the mission. It is designed to be the largest airborne observatory in the world.

It has been planned that the aircraft will take off several times a week into the stratosphere and go up to altitudes of 45,000 feet, flown by NASA pilots. It is anticipated that SOFIA will take approximately 2,800 flights, lasting from 8-10 hours each, set to happen over the course of the next 20 years.

Reports say that the telescope aboard the SOFIA will give experts the clearest view that they have ever had of the center of the Milky Way. The infrared telescope works by detecting heat radiation rather than depending on visible light. Because of this, visuals that are in the electromagnetic spectrum that are unable to be detected by the human eye can also be seen. These wavelengths, which are 50 to 100 times longer than the eye can register, do not come through in our atmosphere. The SOFIA can also look at magnetic fields, which is a capability that very few observatories have. Magnetic fields are understood to have a strong influence on star formation, and with the SOFIA scientists can more closely examine the causes and effects that magnetic fields have on young stars.

Infrared light also has the quality of being able to penetrate dust that surrounds the star clusters. It is understood that there is more star formation activity happening near the supermassive black hole region that anywhere else in the galaxy – and now, scientists can get more information about the physics of what is occurring in the area. The scientific community is extremely excited about being able to access this information, which they otherwise have absolutely no means of getting.

They make it clear that studying the dust that forms the stars is an opportunity that SOFIA uniquely offers. Investigating this is seen as key to understanding how the stars are formed, and to understanding our solar system and possibly, human existence. The galactic center is estimated to have dust that is approximately 500 light years across weighing almost 1 million times the mass of our sun.

SOFIA is all set to take off from NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California. The aircraft can easily accommodate 10 to 15 passengers in a pressurized cabin that is separate from the telescope. SOFIA is a joint program of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

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