The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, program hosted an industry day April 11 to seek partners for the world's largest flying infrared astronomical observatory.
Conducted at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703 in Palmdale, Calif., presentations focused on the flying observatory's capabilities and how industry can partner with NASA for observations. The day also included tours of the science labs and the NASA 747SP that houses SOFIA's German-made telescope.
"The President’s fiscal year 2015 budget request to Congress proposes to greatly reduce funding for SOFIA," said Paul Hertz, NASA's Director of Astrophysics in explaining the Industry Day objectives. "Unless partners are able to support the U.S. portion of SOFIA costs, there will be inadequate funding to continue SOFIA operations and NASA would place the aircraft into storage by FY 2015."
"NASA is now in the process of seeking out potential partners interested in joining the NASA/DLR team and contribute to the continued operation of SOFIA beyond the current fiscal year," he added. "The SOFIA Industry Day at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center gives the agency and the SOFIA program team an opportunity to show off SOFIA to prospective partners and to the world. It also gives a chance to talk with those seeking more information about NASA’s plans for SOFIA and the opportunities that are being created."
On April 1, NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit potential partners for scientific investigations. Costs are estimated at $1 million per night for a dedicated mission. The SOFIA team has set April 31 as the deadline for submission of proposals in order to solidify partnership agreements prior to the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year on Oct. 1. The RFI is available at: http://go.nasa.gov/1jvKupw
SOFIA Program Manager Eddie Zavala explained during the briefings that the observatory reached full operational capability on Feb. 21 and SOFIA has already demonstrated that it is a key part of NASA's scientific observation assets.
"What makes SOFIA unique is that its instrument complement covers a broad range of the infrared wavelengths," Zavala said. "Because the observatory is an aircraft, the instruments can be improved and upgraded to take advantage of emerging technologies. The observatory can also quickly react to transient and unplanned events, such as comets. Additionally, SOFIA is capable of temporary operations from other locations such as the Southern Hemisphere, where SOFIA can observe objects of interest that are only seen in the skies at that latitude. The observatory can also fly to remote areas to observe phenomena where there are no other telescope facilities."
SOFIA is the only infrared telescope available to the astronomical community to provide data over a very large portion of the infrared spectrum, said Pam Marcum, SOFIA's project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. Calif.
"SOFIA has much to offer potential partners," she explained. "SOFIA has capabilities to acquire one-of-a-kind data that could provide a key to unlocking long-standing questions about the universe, the Milky Way and even the origins of the solar system."
"SOFIA has high angular resolution at wavelengths at which warm dust glows most brightly," she explained. "This important capability alone is key to answering questions on how stars, such as our own sun, came to be. For example, in cases where other observatories may have seen a single 'blob' of infrared light, SOFIA acts like a high-precision camera that can distinguish individual stars within the clump and to perform an accurate census of newly formed stars in that region."
In addition to seeing through interstellar dust clouds, SOFIA is able to separate light into component colors with very high precision, allowing detailed investigation of the components and motions of celestial objects.
"Armed with those tools, SOFIA observations that peer into the core of clouds with nascent stars could provide answers to elusive questions about the earliest phases of star formation," Marcum said. "Do stars form by themselves, or do they always form in groups? If molecular clouds always produce multiple stars, then why doesn’t our sun at least have a twin? Such studies potentially will help researchers better understand planet formation around protostars by identifying the conditions most conducive to formation, such as chemical processing around of the protostar."
SOFIA is able to provide data on bright, star-forming regions, which are generally too bright for space-based telescopes to clearly see, Marcum said.
For investigations such as catching a cloud in the act of collapsing and producing a star, Marcum explained that the range of wavelengths at which SOFIA observes is a “sweet spot.” In other words, the dusty cocoon surrounding the developing star would be too opaque to allow shorter wavelength light to pass out of the cloud, while the cocoon would be too transparent at longer wavelengths to definitively determine that the cloud was actually collapsing.
"In addition, the observatory flies above 99 percent of the water vapor within the Earth’s atmosphere, which gives the observatory clear visibility within certain wavelength ranges that are blocked to observations by ground-based telescopes," Marcum said. "While terrestrial atmospheric humidity is the bane of an infrared astronomer, ironically the formation of water in space is a poorly understood process for which SOFIA will provide essential data, as well as for investigations of other life-essential molecules."
SOFIA is a joint program of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The program is managed and the aircraft is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center. NASA's Ames Research Center manages SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut in Stuttgart, Germany.
Jay Levine, X-Press editor
NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center