Debut flight pictures evolving stars

CORNELL (US) — Unparalleled new images are giving scientists views of star-forming regions within and outside the Milky Way.

The images were taken by the Faint Object InfraRed Camera (FORCAST) on board the debut science flights of the SOFIA airborne observatory, as it flew at between 39,000 and 45,000 feet—above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Terry Herter, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and principal investigator for FORCAST, says the flight was “spectacular. Almost everything I can think of exceeded my expectations.”

Scientists looked at several regions where new stars are forming and evolving; including the Orion nebula and a region known as S140 in our galaxy; and young stars in a distant starburst galaxy known as M82.

Viewing the regions around young stars in the infrared (FORCAST operates at wavelengths of 5 to 40 microns) allows the camera to see through dust in space and provide a multicolor view of places that are obscured in optical wavelengths.

Around the nascent stars, the researchers found the spectral signature of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs—organic compounds that can only exist and be detected under certain conditions.

“We can look at how these come and go; how they’re excited and where they appear,” Herter says. That information could help researchers piece together how the system is evolving.

The researchers also targeted protoplanetary discs, or proplyds, the discs of matter that orbit very young stars and could offer insight into the formation of our solar system.

Within our solar system, FORCAST captured images of Jupiter, where powerful storms have recently been causing turmoil in its dark Southern Equatorial Belt.

FORCAST collected images of the same region last May during a test flight, giving scientists a basis for comparison.

The team also got a new perspective on the pear-shaped comet Hartley, observed by NASA’s EPOXI mission in November.

“It’s a privilege and honor to be the first to be entrusted with the telescope,” Herter says, adding that it’s gratifying to know that the team accomplished what it set out to do—and more.

“It’s very difficult to describe the environment while you’re flying. It’s unlike ground-based or space-based observing; air time is precious, so you’re under the gun to get the data,” he says. “So it’s really a good feeling to get through it. It’s exciting, and a relief.”

The craft took off from NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations facility in Palmdale, Calif. three times between Nov. 30 and Dec. 7.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut at the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

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