After more than a decade of planning and months of practice runs, the SOFIA airborne observatory -- carrying the Cornell-built infrared camera FORCAST (the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope) -- took off from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., at 7:33 p.m. Nov. 30. for its premiere science flight.
Ten hours and hundreds of miles later, the highly modified Boeing 747SP touched down with unparalleled new images of star-forming regions within and outside the Milky Way ... and a team of very happy scientists.
Terry Herter, professor of astronomy and principal investigator for FORCAST, called the flight "spectacular."
"Almost everything I can think of exceeded my expectations," Herter said.
Three days later, the team completed its second science flight; and on Dec. 7, its third. A few minor glitches aside, those flights went equally smoothly.
Now, with four months before their next flight with FORCAST, the Cornell team heads home with plenty of data to analyze and the satisfaction of a long-anticipated job well done.
Flying at between 39,000 and 45,000 ft. -- above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere -- the SOFIA team 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 said. 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.
And the team got a new perspective on the pear-shaped comet Hartley, observed by NASA's EPOXI mission in November.
For Herter and the rest of the FORCAST team, which includes project scientist Joe Adams, lead engineer and research support specialist George Gull, programmer Justin Schoenwald and Ithaca College physicist Luke Keller, it's been a memorable week.
"It's a privilege and honor to be the first to be entrusted with the telescope," Herter said, 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 said. "So it's really a good feeling to get through it. It's exciting, and a relief."
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.