SOFIA completes first flight of German science instrument

April 8, 2011
GREAT collected its first THz photons from the M173W star forming cloud April 6, 2011. Superimposed on a near-infrared false-color image measured by the Spitzer Space Telescope are selected spectra of ionized carbon (white line) and warm carbon monoxide (green line). (GREAT Team/ NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI)

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, completed its first science flight Wednesday, April 6, using the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) scientific instrument. GREAT is a high-resolution far-infrared spectrometer that finely divides and sorts light into component colors for detailed analysis.

SOFIA is the only operational airborne observatory. It is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The observatory is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP aircraft carrying a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches. Flying at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, above the water vapor in Earth's lower atmosphere that blocks most infrared radiation from celestial sources, SOFIA conducts astronomy research not possible with ground-based telescopes.

"SOFIA's onboard crew seamlessly combined scientists, engineers and technicians from the U.S. and Germany, working together on an observatory developed in the U.S., using a telescope and instrument built in Germany, to gather data of great interest to the entire world's scientific community," said Bob Meyer, NASA's SOFIA Program manager at the agency's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.

GREAT Principal Investigator Rolf Guesten of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and his team conducted observations high above the central and western United States beginning the night of April 5 with their instrument installed on SOFIA's telescope.

Among their targets were IC 342, a located 11 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Camelopardalis ("The Giraffe"), and the Omega Nebula (known as M17), 5,000 light-years away in Sagittarius. The team captured and analyzed radiation from ionized and carbon monoxide molecules to probe the chemical reactions, motions of matter and flows of energy occurring in interstellar clouds. Astronomers have evidence such clouds in both IC 342 and M17 are forming numerous massive stars.

"These first spectra are the reward for the many years of work creating this technology, and underline the scientific potential of airborne far-infrared spectroscopy," Guesten said.

GREAT focused on strong far-infrared emissions from that cool the clouds. The balance between heating and cooling processes regulates the temperature of the interstellar material and controls initial conditions for the formation of new stars.

"These observations give us unique information about the physical processes and chemical conditions in the stellar nurseries," said Juergen Stutzki, a co-investigator on the GREAT team. "SOFIA will give us new and deep insight into how stars form."

GREAT, one of two German first-generation SOFIA scientific instruments, was developed by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Cologne in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the DLR Institute of Planetary Research.

"This first science flight with a German instrument is a huge milestone for the SOFIA observatory," said John Gagosian, SOFIA program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "GREAT, in combination with SOFIA's other German and U.S.-developed instruments, demonstrates SOFIA's extraordinary versatility, allowing it to play a unique and essential role alongside the Spitzer and Herschel spacecraft."

Explore further: NASA Tests Unique Jumbo Jet with Opening in Side; Plane's Airborne Telescope Will Be Used to Study Cosmos

Related Stories

CU telescope debuts on NASA flying observatory

May 25, 2010

( -- SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, will take flight May 25 along with the Cornell-built FORCAST (the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope).

NASA's SOFIA Observatory Obtains 'First Light' Imagery

May 27, 2010

( -- NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, successfully obtained its first in-flight, nighttime celestial observations during its “First Light” mission early Wednesday morning, ...

SOFIA Observatory Prepares For Early Science Flights

October 5, 2010

( -- Testing of the entire integrated observatory system and individual subsystems on NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy 747SP is slated to occur during October during a series of nighttime, ...

SOFIA opens new window on star formation in Orion

January 12, 2011

A mid-infrared mosaic image from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, offers new information about processes of star formation in and around the nebula Messier 42 in the constellation Orion. The ...

GREAT spectrometer readied for flight on SOFIA

March 31, 2011

( -- Scientists recently completed a series of nighttime, ground-based testing of the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT, spectrometer in preparation for a series of astronomical ...

Recommended for you

Predictable ecosystems may be more fragile

October 7, 2015

When it comes to using our natural resources, human beings want to know what we're going to get. We expect clean water every time we turn on the tap; beaches free of algae and bacteria; and robust harvests of crops, fish ...

History shows more big wildfires likely as climate warms

October 5, 2015

The history of wildfires over the past 2,000 years in a northern Colorado mountain range indicates that large fires will continue to increase as a result of a warming climate, according to new study led by a University of ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.