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Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy

Phase: Operating

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Program(s):Cosmic Origins

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SOFIA is the largest airborne observatory in the world, and makes observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes. NASA and the German space agency, DLR, are working together to operate SOFIA - a Boeing 747-SP aircraft modified to accommodate a 2.5 meter gyro-stabilized telescope. SOFIA officially began its operational phase in May 2014.

Sagittarius A East Supernova Remnant

Sagittarius A East Supernova Remnant
SOFIA data reveal warm dust (white) surviving inside a supernova remnant.
Image credit: NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/SOFIA-FORCAST/Lau et al.

SOFIA is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) in southern California. SOFIA's science operations center is at NASA's Ames Research Center in northern California.

SOFIA is studying many different kinds of astronomical objects and phenomena, but some of the most interesting are:

  • Star birth and death
  • Formation of new solar systems
  • Identification of complex molecules in space
  • Planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system
  • Nebulae and dust in galaxies (or, Ecosystems of galaxies)
  • Black holes at the center of galaxies

There are six first generation instruments, four U.S. made and two German made. All six of the instruments have now flown on SOFIA. The instruments — cameras, spectrometers, and a photometer — operate across a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum, from the optical to the far infrared. Two second generation instruments, one U.S. made and one German made, will be added by early 2016. Some of the instruments are special purpose instruments designed to study a particular phenomenon, while others are general purpose instruments capable of acquiring data from a broad range of astronomical objects.

Because of the ease with which SOFIA instruments can be changed as well as the hands-on nature of observing with SOFIA, the observatory provides a unique platform for the demonstration of new observational techniques, the development of new instruments, and the education of young scientists and teachers in the discipline of infrared astronomy.

Last updated: April 24, 2015

Related Links
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  • Stars and Space Between video -
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