The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint NASA-German Aerospace Center (DLR) project, completed an observation mission in Chile April 1, where it captured high-resolution celestial images only visible from the Southern Hemisphere.
SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters. The aircraft flies at an altitude of 11,000 to 13,000 meters, above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere. This makes it possible for astronomers to study the solar system in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes, the Chilean Ministry of Science said.
The SOFIA team operated from Santiago International Airport and made eight flights to observe the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), which are the Milky Way’s closest neighboring galaxies, and considered to be gravitationally bound, informed the U.S. Embassy in Chile.
The observations will serve to create the first map of ionized carbon in the LMC. “Since the Large Magellanic Cloud is so close to our galaxy, SOFIA can observe it in great detail, on relatively small astronomical scales, to help scientists better understand how stars formed in the early universe,” the Embassy said.
“The main objective was complete a map of the emission in the infrared continuum of the Magellanic Cloud,” Dr. Edmond Harmon, head of the SOFIA mission, told the Chilean newspaper El Mostrador. The project is led by Professor Mónica Rubio of the University of Chile, he added.
Another of SOFIA’s objectives, the U.S. Embassy added, was to observe supernova remnants, to investigate how some explosions may have contributed to the abundance of space dust. The SOFIA team also made observations to measure the abundance of lithium, which could have implications for our understanding of the Big Bang theory of the evolution of the universe.
“We are thrilled to deploy to Chile so we can provide more access to the Southern Hemisphere skies for our scientific community,” said Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist. “We are increasing our deployment tempo with a focus on efficiency and prioritized targets, and we are grateful for the opportunity to do that from Santiago.”
This is SOFIA’s first visit to South America and its first short-term deployment. This mission is considered short because normally more than 25 flights with multiple instruments are planned.
“Scientific collaboration, particularly in astronomy, has been a cornerstone of the U.S.-Chile relationship, dating back to the Observatorio de Cerro Santa Lucia in Santiago more than 170 years ago,” said Richard Glenn, the U.S. Embassy Chile Chargé d’Affaires. “NASA’s SOFIA deployment to Chile is the next exciting milestone in that relationship, bringing us closer to the stars than ever before.”
Among this observatory’s biggest achievements was in October 2020, when it detected for the first time water molecules on the Moon, in the Clavius crater, on the sunlit surface of the Moon and one of the largest craters visible from Earth, NASA said. “This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places.”
NASA’s Ames Research Center in California manages the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations, in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. DLR is providing the telescope, aircraft maintenance, and other support for the mission.