Airborne Astronomy with SOFIA - Motivation and Science Highlights


Wednesday, 11 May 2016 1 p.m. — 2 p.m. MST

AURA Lecture Hall

NOIRLab South Colloquia
HANS ZINNECKER (SOFIA Science Centre &DLR and Gemini Visiting Atstronomer)

SOFIA, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a 2.7m telescope flying on a Boeing 747SP at altitudes of 12-14km, to detect and study mid- and far-infrared radiation that is blocked by water vapor in the earth's atmosphere and cannot reach the ground. It is the successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and currently the only access to and platform for astronomical observations in the far-infrared (30-300 microns), except for balloon-borne telescopes.

Although a bilateral project (80:20) between USA (NASA/USRA) and Germany (DLR/DSI), it is open for proposals from the world-wide astronomical community at large. It addresses many science questions that Herschel has left unanswered and offers observational opportunities similar to and beyond Herschel.

SOFIA has reached full operational capability in 2014 and has just issued its Cycle 5 call for proposals (deadline 1 July, 2016), offering a suite of 5 mid- and far-infrared imagers and spectrometers (and NASA funding to support data analysis and publications). Recent instruments to be commissioned (2nd generation) and offered in shared risk (in Cycle 4 and 5) are upGREAT (a 14 pixel THz array) and HAWC+ (a 4x32x40 FIR imager with a polarimetric observing mode).

SOFIA is new window to the local universe to study fundamental processes in astrophysics and astrochemistry, such as ISM heating and cooling, star formation, and feedback processes, as well as age-dating star forming molecular cores using new chemical molecular clocks. Science questions of the near future include molecular cloud formation and destruction, the dynamics of cloud collapse and circumstellar disks, protostellar outflows, turbulence, shocks and the effect of magnetic fields. Emission and absorption of fine structure lines ([CII] and [OI]), highly excitated CO rotational lines, the use of HD (as a proxy for H2), and other molecular tracers (e.g. OH, OD, or H2D+) will enlighten us about complex but key physical interactions in interstellar space.

In my presentation, I will describe a glimpse of SOFIA science highlights and discoveries in its first few years of operation. I also plan to discuss SOFIA's unique potential as the only successor to the Herschel far-infrared satellite (2009-2013).

SOFIA normally flies out of California, but once a year also deploys to the Southern Hemisphere (usually to New Zealand, but in the future potentially also to Chile), thus complementing sub-millimeter molecular observations with ALMA or APEX.