What is SOFIA? NASA’s eye in the sky 

Being the world's largest airborne astronomical observatory, the telescope has the ability to provide three times better image quality.

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi | Updated: January 2, 2018 2:51:30 pm
Sofia telescope The telescope features a 100-inch diameter telescope weighing up to 20 tons and is mounted in highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. (Source: nasa.gov)

Amid its ongoing research on celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions, comets and Saturn’s giant moon Titan, NASA released a statement saying SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), its flying observatory, is gearing up for 2018 with missions planned between February 2018 and January 2019. The observatory will be heading into its fourth year of operations this year.

What is SOFIA?  

Considered to be one of the premier space science programs of NASA, SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, DLR. It features a 100-inch diameter telescope weighing up to 20 tons and is mounted on a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. SOFIA’s first-generation cameras and spectrographs enable NASA to use it for a wide variety of missions.

Capabilities of SOFIA

Sofia’s 2.5-meter diameter telescope allows astronomers to access the visible, infrared and sub-millimeter spectrum.  Being the world’s largest airborne astronomical observatory, the telescope has the ability to produce a higher resolution image, three times higher in quality than those captured by other observatories.

Sofia telescope SOFIA telescope uses a mirror to concentrate and focus the incoming light. (Source: nasa.gov)

Since the missions are conducted at an estimated altitude ranging between 39,000 to 45,000 feet, the telescope is capable of observing occultations of stars by solar system objects. The telescope has the potential to unravel fundamental questions about the creation and evolution of the universe, including how stars and planets are formed, how organic materials necessary for life form and evolve, and the nature of the black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

Importance of SOFIA in US

The cockpit of NASA’s SOFIA (Source: nasa.gov)

Sofia was designed with an aim to integrate and improve the level of education in US in various sectors dealing with science and technology. It provides the elementary, secondary and college-level educators from across US to participate in scientific and astronomical research. The mission also includes the participation of students from both undergraduate and graduate-level programmes and assisting them in designing and analyzing observations of SOFIA’s telescope.

SOFIA’s 2018 campaign

Scientists will continue their research on how magnetic fields affect the rate at which interstellar clouds condense to form new stars by using SOFIA’s polarimeter (a device used for measuring the alignment of incoming light waves) after the inclusion of the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, called HAWC+.

HAWC+ will also be used in a joint research program to trace magnetic fields for better understanding about the formation of new or existing planets.

SOFIA – lifts off from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., at sunset on July 15, 2011 to begin an all-night astronomical observation mission. (Source: nav.gov)

The hunt to detect the availability of methane in Mars will continue. Observations will be conducted after Curiosity Rover ( a car-sized rover designed to explore Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission) revealed the presence of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. A study will also be carried out on how the level of methane changes with the change in seasons on the ‘Red Planet’.

A team of researchers will be studying comet 46P/Writanen as it passes close to the Earth. The study includes seeking clues from the comet’s dust to help in understanding the evolution of the early solar system.

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