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Flying Observatory SOFIA to Begin Studying New Frontiers in the Solar System

Nov 18, 2016 04:50 AM EST
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NASA's Stratospheric Observation for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will soon begin its 2017 observing campaign.

SOFIA, a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope, will soon be studying Neptune's giant moon Triton and will follow up on Hubble's recent sighting of water plumes on Jupiter's moon Europa.

Other include conducting observations of planets, comets and asteroids orbiting other stars, as well as supermassive black holes in other galaxies. It will also study star formation and the interstellar medium, the areas of dust and gas in the universe, including a vast turbulent region encircling the center of the Milky Way, NASA said.

SOFIA's Science Cycle 5 will cover 535 observing hours beginning February 2017 until January 2018. Selected programs span the entire field of astronomy from planetary science to extragalactic investigations, where observations could go as near as Triton to as far away as supermassive black holes 12 billion light years away.

"Four very highly rated programs were selected to investigate the galactic center region using the upGREAT high-resolution far-infrared spectrometer," Harold Yorke, SOFIA Science Mission Director of the Universities Space Research Association said in a statement.

According to Yorke, three of the programs will study the Central Molecular Zone - a vast turbulent region circling the Milky Way's nucleus. The fourth program will focus on material surrounding the supermassive black hole surrounding the Milky Way.

SOFIA, a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, is equipped with eight instruments that will study the universe at infrared wavelengths that cannot be detected from ground-based observatories. The instruments include the spectrometer called upGREAT, the FORCAST infrared camera, the far-infrared imaging spectrometer FIFI-LS, a mid-infrared spectrometer called EXES, and the high-resolution camera HAWC+, among others.

SOFIA will be observing Triton when it passes in front of a bright background star in October 2017. This would require a mini-deployment to the U.S. East Coast where the shadow of Triton will briefly be cast to allow a look at the moon's thin atmosphere, NASA said.

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