Scientist to make stellar observations aboard Boeing 747

December 2nd, 2010 - 5:38 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Dec 2 (ANI): A scientist from the University of Colorado at Boulder will be one of two scientists who will use data gathered by a world-class telescope flying aboard a modified Boeing 747 to peer at a distant star-forming region.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, was significantly modified in order to mount a 2.5-meter reflecting telescope in the rear fuselage, said Senior Research Associate Paul Harvey of CU-Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.

The jet will fly at 40,000 to 45,000 feet in altitude, putting it above more than 99 percent of the water vapour in the atmosphere - which blocks infrared light from reaching the ground - and will allow scientists to observe stellar targets in wavelengths of light that can’t be observed by ground-based telescopes, said Harvey.

SOFIA’s Faint Object InfraRed Camera, known as FORCAST, is a versatile camera that collects light from the visible, infrared and sub-millimeter portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, Harvey said.

Harvey will be observing and analyzing the distribution of dust and gas in a young, star-forming cluster known as Sharpless 140 that is roughly 3,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus.

“Observing the birth of stars in our own galaxy is critical because planetary systems form at the same time that a central star is formed,” said Harvey.

“In addition, some of the most luminous galaxies in the universe appear to be powered by extreme bursts of star formation.”

Harvey said the FORCAST camera on the telescope has large, two-dimensional array detectors that are similar to charge-coupled devices found in digital cameras.

The goal is to obtain a sequence of images of the star cluster with the telescope, which will move almost imperceptibly between each image in order to sample “sub-pixels.”

One advantage of the SOFIA observatory is that scientists can make changes and improvements to the craft’s instruments between flights as well as change observing techniques, said Harvey.

“These are impossible tasks for orbiting telescopes that have very fixed procedures for the instruments and observations.”

SOFIA’s suite of instruments are expected to gather new information on a wide variety of astronomical targets, including black holes, distant galaxies, the formation of stars and planets, and up close views of comets and asteroids. (ANI)

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