The NASA SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) isn’t just an average observatory. It’s actually the world's largest airborne astronomical observatory and it works hand-in-hand with not only NASA’s space telescopes but also some major land-based telescopes.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jet modified to accommodate a 100-inch in diameter telescope. The first time SOFIA collected astronomical data was back May of 2010 when it observed infrared light emitted over 550 years ago from Antares, a red supergiant star. SOFIA’s first flight was made later that same year in November 2010, enabling NASA to collect data on various celestial bodies.

SOFIA calls NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center home, but that’s not where the observations take place. Not even close! SOFIA spends most of her time between 39,000 and 45,000 feet in altitude, high above 99% of the atmosphere’s water vapor. Because of this water vapor, SOFIA’s observations would not be possible from a ground telescope.

What Does the NASA SOFIA Observatory Do?

In 2018, the fourth full year of operations for the craft, SOFIA is adding a new piece of equipment: the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus (HAWC+). This instrument will continue research with its polarimeter. This device is used “to measure the angle of rotation caused by passing polarized light through an optically active substance.”These measurements could help scientists better understand magnetic fields and how they affect interstellar clouds condensing to form new stars. These new findings could also teach researchers about the impact magnetic fields have on stars forming inside of dark clouds.

In addition to these studies, HAWC+ will also be used in tandem with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to trace magnetic fields in an effort to better understand how planets are formed. In short, SOFIA will be helping researchers and scientists understand the universe around us and how it forms.

We learn more and more about the universe every day. Thanks to SOFIA, we’ve got a pretty great partner in the endeavor.

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