The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, took off for its maiden flight during the early hours of Wednesday morning and the “first light” images of the observations taken during the flight are available.
Already, the flying telescope has spotted something that has never been seen before: ancient heat leaking through the clouds of Jupiter.
The 2.5 meter telescope is mounted inside the fuselage of a modified Boeing 747 airliner* that can cruise at an altitude of 41,000 ft, allowing the infrared light from cosmic objects to be collected above 99 percent of obscuring atmospheric water vapor.
At these altitudes, SOFIA is able to receive 80 percent of the infrared radiation received by orbiting telescopes — such as NASA’s Spitzer space telescope.
So, what did SOFIA see?
“The crowning accomplishment of the night came when scientists on board SOFIA recorded images of Jupiter at wavelengths unobservable by either ground-based observatories or current space telescopes,” said SOFIA senior science advisor Eric Becklin. “The composite image from SOFIA shows heat, trapped since the formation of the planet, pouring out of Jupiter’s interior through holes in its clouds.”
Although Jupiter is one of the most studied planets in our Solar System, seeing it shine in a different light fascinates me, especially as the infrared signal represents the heat created during the formation of the gas giant billions of years ago.
Oh yes, SOFIA also grabbed a look at the center of M82 (shown below), a galaxy 12 million light years away, but for me, observing Jupiter’s ancient heat is most fascinating.
*Interestingly, the 747 carrying the SOFIA kit has quite a history according to the mission website:
Image credits: NASA, SOFIA, N. A. Sharp, NOAO, AURA, NSF
Source: SOFIA press release