Friday, January 14, 2011
Seems it is time to change the subtitle of this blog from "Preparing for astronomy..." to "Doing astronomy with SOFIA." I am happy to report the transition of SOFIA from a flying telescope (amazing as that may be) to an observatory that can support a wide variety of astronomy and planetary science research projects. That was the goal of the Short Science series of flights that began in late November. It's called Short Science because the science team selected astronomical investigations and observations that required relatively short exposure times and would yield new research results that we could share with the public within weeks or months of the flights. It may sound like a long time to wait, but astronomical observations routinely require months of data processing and analysis.
After taking a break for the Thanksgiving holiday, we were back on the line with SOFIA on the night of Monday, November 30, rehearsing observing plans for SOFIA's initial science flight. This flight, the first of a three-flight series that ended in early December was the first were the primary goal was to conduct new astronomical observations that take advantage of the unique capabilities of SOFIA and contribute to new knowledge in the fields of astronomy and planetary science. The initial science flight (ISF) went very well and NASA held a press release just hours after we landed to announce the good news. Another goal of the ISF, and the subsequent two science flights, was to make infrared images that would demonstrate to the general public and the astronomical community that SOFIA is working well and producing interesting and useful data. The picture we chose for the first "science" image is a FORCAST view of the central massive star forming region in the Orion Nebula (M42). The two-color composite (false color image) uses red to indicate data taken through a 37 micron filter and green to indicate data taken through a 19 micron filter. Though ground-based telescopes are capable of imaging at 19 microns, such observations are highly dependent on excellent atmospheric conditions. Images like this will be routine on SOFIA. The 37 micron image is only possible from SOFIA since no existing or planned telescope anywhere (even in space) has instruments that operate in the 28 - 40 micron range of the infrared spectrum.
It was exciting to fly on the three Short Science flights for many reasons, but one in particular for me was the fact that we gathered data for so many different astronomical studies. We now have images of a comet that was in the neighborhood late last year, the planet Jupiter (which we revisited in much more detail than we did for the First Light images), a "starburst galaxy", and several regions of star formation in our own Milky Way galaxy. The exciting thing about the images we got is that they have yielded very high quality data. The science team now has unique information for each of those objects and we are working very hard on data analysis over the next weeks and months to publish and share the results with the astronomical research community and the general public.
After we'd had a chance to work on data analysis for a few weeks, NASA and USRA released our new, larger and (I think) even more spectacular image of the Orion star forming region. I also made a short movie comparing visible light and infrared images of this region of space, which Terry Herter (FORCAST principle investigator) presented with the first scientific results from SOFIA this week at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington. We're looking forward to sharing more images and results soon.
Stay tuned: The next SOFIA flight series begins later this spring with observations using the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT, which is one of my favorite SOFIA acronyms). GREAT is an extremely high frequency radio receiver. After the Short Science flights with GREAT, we will bring FORCAST back into service for a second series of science flights proposed by many scientists from the general astronomical community.