NASA’s Flying Telescope Comes to the End of Its Mission, but Leaves a Strong Science Legacy

Most telescopes here on Earth are stationary, tied to a single location, often in the desert or on a mountaintop. But NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) isn’t the majority of telescopes.

SOFIA, on which NASA collaborated with the German Space Agency (DLR), is a flying observatory. In particular, this is a Boeing 747SP aircraft with a huge hole through which a 106-inch (2.7-meter) telescope takes infrared images of the universe. SOFIA’s 10-hour flights at altitudes of 38,000 to 45,000 feet (11,500 to 13,700 meters) meant that its instruments had to observe through a much smaller portion of the earth’s atmosphere, which blocks infrared light.

SOFIA began regular operations in 2014 and has been traveling the night sky around the world looking into space ever since, but its last science campaign was scheduled to end on Wednesday (September 28). The campaign marks the end of the observatory’s three-year mission extension. It will soon be decommissioned as recommended by the latest Astrophysics Decade Review, a document in which scientists evaluate research priorities for the next 10 years.

Related: Photos from SOFIA, NASA’s flying telescope (gallery)

“Cooperation with an exceptionally talented and diverse group of scientists, engineers and aviation experts has enabled SOFIA to achieve a wide range of scientific advances that will have a lasting impact on our understanding of many aspects of astrophysics, from galactic evolution to star formation and planetary science.” This was reported to by SOFIA project scientist Naseem Rangwala of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, who led the science aspects of the mission. “The professionalism, creativity and resilience of the SOFIA team, scientists and engineers, has been at its best during the most challenging and challenging phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.” During this period, the team successfully conducted two international deployments.

We recall some of SOFIA’s most memorable discoveries in its eight years of operation.

Detection of water in sunset regions on the Moon

In 2020, scientists announced that they had found trace amounts of water in sunlit areas of the lunar crater Clavius ​​using SOFIA data. “There have been previous indications from other missions of the presence of water on the sunlit part of the Moon, but SOFIA was able to unequivocally confirm this by detecting a spectral feature unique to water molecules,” Rangwala said. Since then, SOFIA has continued to study the Moon and recently discovered water in the lunar crater Moretus.

There is not much water – for comparison, in the Sahara desert here on Earth, there is 100 times more water than what SOPHIA saw in the Clavius ​​crater. However, the presence of water may have implications for NASA’s future lunar missions, including the VIPER rover due to launch in 2024 to search for water ice at the Moon’s south pole, and the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since. . 1972.

Measuring Oxygen in the Earth’s Upper Atmosphere

SOFIA also did science closer to home. The mesosphere and lower thermosphere are among the least studied parts of the Earth’s atmosphere. In 2021, the German SOFIA Instrument for Terahertz Astronomy (GREAT) measured atomic oxygen in these regions of the upper atmosphere. The work contributed to the research of scientists in the field of the exchange of solar energy between space and the Earth’s surface.

“Researchers have established a critical temperature limit for the mesosphere and lower thermosphere using these measurements,” Rangwala said. “This represents an important contribution to climate change models that rely on these temperature measurements to understand Earth’s climate change.”

Magnetic fields in the universe

“One of the enduring legacies of SOFIA is certainly the SALSA program, which has observed cosmic magnetic fields in many nearby galaxies,” said Rangwala. “Unlike other observatories, SOFIA has unparalleled spatial resolution for these studies. [it] observed small details that would otherwise be unattainable.

The SALSA program, more formally known as the SOFIA Extragalactic Magnetism Study, made numerous discoveries during the SOFIA mission. First, the program determined that all galaxies have magnetic fields in the interstellar medium. But it has also been found that the magnetic fields of recently merged galaxies such as Centaurus A are “enhanced and highly turbulent.”

SOFIA observed the magnetic fields of the galaxy NGC 1068, also known as M77, illustrated by a composite image of the galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Nuclear Spectroscope Array and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (Image credit: NASA/SOFIA; NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roma Tre University)

Recently, SOFIA also studied the magnetic fields of a galaxy called NGC 1097. “These observations show that magnetic fields play a key role in feeding material from the spiral arms and star formation ring into the black hole itself,” Rangwala said. “This study is an important part of SOFIA’s legacy as an example of how astronomers are unraveling the interplay between gravity and cosmic magnetic fields in galactic evolution.”

Discovery of the first molecule

Cosmologists believe that the first molecule to form in the universe after the Big Bang was helium hydride, a combination of helium and hydrogen formed as the universe cooled. But despite this theory, astronomers have been unable to detect any trace of the molecule anywhere in space, even in regions that mimic the environment of the early universe. Until they used SOFIA, ie.

“The SOFIA GREAT instrument is a high-sensitivity, high-resolution spectrometer that could theoretically detect helium hydride in our modern universe, but first it needed an upgrade,” Rangwala said. “The GREAT team of scientists and engineers developed such an upgrade that allowed them to detect helium hydride in the modern universe for the first time, supporting theories of the early universe.”

Follow Stefanie Waldek on Twitter @StefanieWaldek. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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