Jet-flown telescope will deliver data to Boulder researcher

By Staff

Paul Harvey, a senior research associate at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy, is 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 during its inaugural science flight.

Known as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, the jet was significantly modified in order to mount a 2.5-meter reflecting telescope in the rear fuselage, Harvey said.

The jet will fly at 40,000 to 45,000 feet in altitude, putting it above more than 99 percent of the water vapor 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.

Harvey will observe and analyze 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. One light-year is equal to about 6 trillion miles.

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

NASA hopes SOFIA will continue to fly astronomical science observations for the next two decades, with research flights expected to ramp up to two or three flights a week by 2015. 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. SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center.