Category Archives: Science

Don’t Blink!

July 11, 2017

Well, that was a fascinating flight, and very different “feel” to it compared to the infrared astronomy SOFIA flights I have been on these past two weeks. First of all, we took off in the day time, and spend a good fraction of our time with the telescope door closed. Usually our flying observatory takes off at sunset to maximize our time in the dark skies. On Jul 10th we had a much different objective.

We were going to hunt the shadow of a Kuiper Belt Object 2014MU69 passing in front of a 15th magnitude star. It’s projected shadow path on Earth would be quite north of New Zealand and we needed a lot time to get there for the event, with enough fuel to return to Christchurch.

First we needed to get off the ground, and that had been riddled with weather gremlins. There was a forecast of extremely turbulent weather on our north outbound route that we could not fly around nor fly through. We had the possibility of flying under it, but the diversion would take up more fuel than per the nominal plan and there was a risk we might not have enough to get back home. The pilots were able to secure a reading from another pilot in the region who reported the turbulence reality was not that severe. This means we were good to go! However, this info gathering caused a delay of 15 minutes, which the flight plan could tolerate, yet those 15 minutes ate into the book-kept 30 minute margin. We were now to fly with a 15 minute adjustment to hit a point in time and space within 1 second. We were ready!

IMG_5691 Catching SOFIA’s shadow after takeoff.

IMG_5717Uncommon view from SOFIA, having taken off before sunrise, flying now north of New Zealand’s North Island.

On the few hour wait for sunset, New Horizons team had time to go over the plan, recheck all the computations, etc. Most importantly they did some time tests to reconcile differences between UTC (Universal Time Coordinated) and GPS time. I had no idea there was a difference. The pilots will fly and adjust their timing using their GPS clock, but all the mission and science planning used UTC. GPS is not perturbed by leap seconds so it slowly drifts ahead of UTC. However GPS timing receivers put in the conversion factor to convert GPS time to UTC. We had to check that was being done. Also during the time check, we also consulted the WWVH, U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology’s shortwave radio time signal station in Hawaii, on the radio. How best to spend idle time listing to beeps of a radio time signal!

IMG_5728Marc Buie (left), lead scientist who computed the shadow predictions, brings Alan Stern (right), New Horizons mission Principle Investigator up to speed on the latest predictions.

IMG_5729Manuel Wiedemann (left) and Enrico Pfueller (right), our instrument scientists who will operate run the high-speed photometer, get their equipment set up.

The flight plan had a short set up leg to confirm the signal to noise on the star, and then a “time holder” to allow for the pilots to speed up and slow down, and then it would be time for the occultation. The event time remained at 07:49:11 UTC with an interception position at Lat 16d24.2m S, Lon 175d2.4m W.

IMG_5639SOFIA flight path for the MU69 occultation flight displayed on the Mission Director’s Console.

The Flight Path for this occultation flight had us north of Tahiti and catching the occultation (marked by the anchor) on the return south to north leg.

IMG_5753Sunset finally came.

Once the sun was down, the cavity door was opened, and the telescope began to cool down, we waited anxiously for when we could get a test image on the camera. We had an objective: we learned that on the occultation leg we had the opportunity to place a 9th magnitude star in the same small field of view to help with the data analysis (helps with pixel registration), but we did not know whether it would saturate under the observing conditions.

IMG_5761Manuel Wiedemann (seated, left) & Enrico Pfueller (seated, right) table) with Eliot Young (standing) after capturing the first test image and confirmed that the 9th magnitude star did not saturate. We also took a background measurement.

Then it was time for the pilots and Karina Leppik , the mission director, to do their coordination to get the plane to do a 180 degree turn and line us up for a interception at Lat 16d24.2m S, Lon 175d2.4m W at 07:49:11 UTC from 38,000 feet.

IMG_5766_modThe turn into the occultation leg.

IMG_5774Expectant Astronomers. This picture was taken minutes before the event. From left to right, Eliot Young, Simon Porter, Manuel Wiedemann(sitting), Alan Stern, Marc Buie, and Enrico Pfueller(sitting/off screen).

The size of MU69 is unknown. The Hubble Space Telescope images only provide a visual magnitude. There is a degeneracy whether the object is large and dark, or small and highly reflective, as both combinations can provide the equivalent surface area sun reflectance we measure as a magnitude.

The rough range of this object has a diameter of 10 to 40 km. From a distance of 43.3 AU (or 6.5 billion km) away, the shadow projected on Earth has a size ~ 10-40 km. We wanted to hit the shadow center line. With the shadow moving across the earth at ~90,000 km/hr, the event would last 0.4-1.6 seconds. We were reading the camera at 20 frames per second, so the ‘dip’ would appear in 8 to 32 images.

We did not “see” the event in real time. I think I blinked!

Geometry with the full moon would cause additional challenges for the data. As seen in the full frame image below, which was taken specifically to help with subtracting out the background, the occultation star is the one in the bottom center with the bulls-eye (concentric circles) around it. The other brighter stars (marked with squares) are brighter reference stars. Oh how we wish the MU69 would have passed in front of one of them!

IMG_5777_modThe occultation star is in the bottom middle, marked with the bulls-eye concentric circles. All eyes were on this star during this flight.

None the less, over 60,000 frames of images were taken spanning a continuous 50 minutes period centered about this <2 second event and samples the instability region around MU69. No loss of data. The camera did not blink, even if we did.

The flight’s excitement would continue with some telescope testing with simulated turbulence by pilots doing “speed brakes” and then it was watching the fog reports from Christchurch Airport. If the fog did not lift, we may have needed to divert to Auckland. This time those weather gods stayed kind and we landed safely at Christchurch shortly after midnight.

With data in hand, the SwRI scientists deplaned SOFIA, would catch a short nap, and then they would all be off to South America to start preparing for the 3rd of 3 occultations event by this MU69 on July 17th.

In summary, on July 10th, SOFIA delivered its mission and flew to a place in space above the Earth within 10 km and within 1 second of the target point. We had no clouds to deal with, just winds and the full moon. Winds were accommodated by guiding the airplane with heading and speed tweaks. The full moon provided a challenge, yet all the photometry tricks like scattered light images and reference stars, plus the normal bias, darks and flats, have been added to the toolbox.

We hunted.

We did not blink.

Now we wait…

….to learn what the New Horizons team finds.

Carpe Umbra

July 10, 2017

We have a very different type of science flight tonight, a timed-event. This time the science focus is getting the SOFIA aircraft to be located over a specific latitude and longitude on Earth at a certain elevation at a specific time. We are flying an occultation flight. SOFIA has done this twice before capturing the shadow of Pluto as its passed in front of a distant star and created a shadow that moved across Earth at 90,000 km/hr. And we have a upcoming Triton occultation event in October later this year.

Occultation: not a typical everyday word. In fact it turns out that the word occultation is not the same as an eclipse or a transit, which I learned only recently.

An occultation occurs only when a body completely hides another as seen by the observer. The verb to occult simply means to block out.  For this July 10th event, this body 2014MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object, is going to blockout a 15th magnitude background star.

A transit is when the body passing in front of the other body only partially blocks it (like Mercury transiting the Sun and all those “transiting exoplanets” that ground-based telescopes and Kepler have been discovering).

Finally, an eclipse occurs when one body passes into the shadow of another body and disappears at least partially.

So is the Aug 21st Solar Eclipse (who’s shadow path crosses North America) an eclipse? Well, it all depends on your viewpoint.

When the Moon blots out the Sun, the Earth, by falling into the Moon’s shadow, is eclipsed.  The Sun is not eclipsed. It is correct to say is the Moon has occulted the Sun.

Thus, August 21st perhaps is more correctly categorized as a solar occultation. On the flip side, all Lunar Eclipses are real Eclipses, the Moon disappears in the shadow of the Earth (the Moon dims due to the absence of light caused by the Earth’s shadow).

The event of July 10th had a predicted ground path as described here

On board SOFIA, we had Marc Buie and Simon Porter, the experts in the computing the path of 2014MU69 who were updating this exact timeline based on the most recent HST measurements of 2014MU69 (as of Jul 4th) just the day before flight.


SwRI Scientists Simon Porter, Marc Buie, and Eliot Young will fly on SOFIA as Guest Observers to catch MU69’s shadow.

At the time of flight takeoff, SOFIA would be hunting a shadow center intercept time of 07:49:11 UTC with an interception position at Lat 16d24.2m S, Lon 175d2.4m W. The duration of the dip in the light curve would be extremely small, less than 2 seconds, as MU69 is a very tiny object (diameter is estimated to be between 10-40 km) a long way away (43 AU; or 10 AU past Pluto). A very challenging occultation to capture.

The flight planners and navigators aboard SOFIA can position the aircraft with the precision need for this measurement (within 10 km; and 1 second). I’m eager to witness first how this type of flight plan unfolds over the night.

Time to board!


Be nebulous no more!

July 6, 2017

Last night’s flight aboard SOFIA had us peering into the chemistry of a range of planetary nebulae and large molecular clouds.

We first looked at N159 in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a neighbouring galaxy 170,000 light years away, moving away from us. N159 is a star forming region, a large cloud (over 150 light-years across) of gas where hot newborn massive stars are being born.

Next we repositioned the telescope to peek at the Tarantula Nebula, also known as 30 Doradus, a very active star formation region in the LMC. Supernova 1987A, which SOFIA will observe later this summer with an infrared camera, occurred in the outskirts of this Tarantula Nebula.

With SOFIA’s GREAT spectrometer, scientists were studying atomic oxygen in both star forming regions with the hope to better understand the physical properties of this unique regions in the LMC.

IMG_5457-modSOFIA’s focal plane imager (visible guide camera) with a 8’x8′ field of view centered on 30Doradus.

Our eyes turned towards the Butterfly Nebula, a planetary nebula in the constellation Scorpius. Unlike young-stellar objects and star-core clumps where we are trying to assess the chemistry of star formation, here we are studying planetary nebulae , part of stellar death. The Butterfly Nebula has a double-lobed structure: an area of active study of the kinematics (speed, interactions, shocks) of the gas and its makeup (ionized, atomic, molecular). On this flight, SOFIA did some mapping of this object in multiple atomic transitions.

Later we looked at the Red Spider Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius, another bi-polar (two lobed) planetary nebula like the Butterfly, but with immense wind speeds. For both planetary nebula, scientists are measuring two transition of neutral oxygen to assess what’s putting in the energy to make these beautiful structures. To first order the UV radiation from the central white dwarf should be enough, but the intensity and variety of atomic and ionized species implies there must be another source of energy. Hopefully these SOFIA observations can shed light on that mystery.

Eta Carinae is one of the most fascinating objects in the sky, a stellar system made up at least 2 stars (maybe more) which is has been undergoing dramatic changes, with documented brightness changes hundreds of years before. Being south of 60 degree South Latitude it is not at all viewable from the northern hemisphere and its bright enough to be a naked-eye object. One star in this system is hypothesized by many astronomers to explode as a supernovae in the near future. It is losing mass at an incredible rate. SOFIA will take inventory of ionized carbon in this object to confirm the presence of a cloud of material across it.

Last night, other areas of study for our flying astrochemistry observatory were to understand the role of hydrides (binary compound with hydrogen) in a massive star formation region plus mapping of the ionized gas near our galaxy’s central massive black hole.

It was a jammed-pack flight with a whole load of cool targets!


Some of the exotic targets for SOFIA’s July 5th Flight (a) N159, (b) 30 Dor (Tarantula), (c) NGC6302 (Butterfly), (d) NGC6537 (Red Spider), (e) eta Carinae, (f) NGC3603 (stellar nursery). We were doing spectroscopy of these sources to better understand their dynamics.


It gets cold on these flights with the GREAT instrument, as they like to keep their electronics cool. I was armed with my flask of hot tea, many layers of fleece, thick socks, and hat, gloves and scarf. It did help that you could walk around a bit to stretch those legs, talk with different members of the crew, and think about the uniqueness of this amazing observatory flying high above planet Earth, coming home in the morning. Just in time for breakfast, and tea.


Kimberly all in her fleece, with Stefanie Milam (behind). Ready for landing after a science-filled flight.


Re-discovering our cosmic origins

July 4, 2017

Last night we had two Guest Observers aboard the flying observatory, Dr. Monica Rubio from the University of Santiago Chile, and Dr. James Jackson, from the University of New Castle, north of Sydney, Australia, both first time fliers. It was fascinating sitting down with both of them during the course of the flight to learn more about them and also what they think of SOFIA. Guest Observers Monica Rubio, James Jackson and Stefanie Milam all excited about doing their science with SOFIA and first time flyers. Stefanie would fly the next day.


James was a veteran Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), the precursor airborne observatory to SOFIA, observer and his first remarks to SOFIA is – “It’s big. The instruments are 10x larger. And more people. Plus there is room to walk about.” And when he witnessed the “mapping” feature of the GREAT instrument on the SOFIA telescope, he remarked “phenomenal.” It took a bit over a year to design (and equally important, fully debug), but this piece of software aptly called “The Translator” really enables efficient hand-shaking between the science instrument and the telescope, so much so that you can truly embrace this airborne observatory does use every precious minute in the sky to its fullest potential.

Now his object of interest was the ‘Nessie Nebula.’ It is a large filamentary gas cloud in the spiral arm of our Milky Way. It’s a fascinating place as it is home to some wacky star forming regions. It got it’s name from the fact that is looks quite serpentine across the sky. He’s looking for gas infalling on the cores, which supposedly are forming massive stars. With this information he hopes to be put together a clearer picture how stars form from collapsing clouds.

IMG_5388James Jackson (standing) talking strategy with Ed Chambers (seated), instrument scientist.

Monica’s favourite place in the sky is the Small Magellanic Cloud, or SMC, a neighbouring galaxy to ours, a meer 200,000 light years away. The SMC is very different from our own galaxy, in terms of its chemical makeup, with a makeup more similar to high-redshift galaxies at the edge of the known universe. SOFIA is in a prime location from the southern hemisphere latitudes to see this object high in the sky. Over the course of a few nights, she was targeting seven different star formation regions in the SMC. She’s studying a transition of ionized carbon with the hopes to measure the reservoir of star forming gas in the SMC and investigate how we can use local knowledge about the SMC to better explain the chemistry of the high-redshift universe. Monica uses a lot of ground-base sub-millimeter telescopes for her research, and SOFIA gives her the ‘infrared’ chemistry she needs.


Monica Rubio discussing her science with GREAT instrument team members Anna Parikka and Denise Riquelme Vasquez.

Our route this flight took us down to 64 deg 55 min 39 sec South latitude which provided a nice glimpse of the aurora Australis, a chemistry of a different kind, that of our planet’s atmosphere interacting with the solar wind.


Southern Lights or Tagu-Nui-A-Rangi, the great burning in the sky.


Panaroma of July 3rd flight.


Our Infrared Eyes

June 29, 2017

Last night (June 28th) aboard SOFIA, we observed star formation regions in the Small Magellanic Cloud, did a survey of neutral gas within the Galactic Center, plus looked for oxygen in low mass protostars and in the envelopes of interstellar clouds. The method we use is spectroscopy, and in more particular, high-resolution spectroscopy to isolate the wavelength (or frequency) of a particular atomic or molecular transition.

When observing on the flying observatory, the time spent on each target is optimized in advance to take into account the position of the object in the sky, the direction of the airplane, and the motion of the sky throughout the observation. When you add in the constraint the airplane takes off from Christchurch and has to return to Christchurch combined with the fact that the telescope only looks out the “left” (port) side of the 747SP, it makes for unique flight plans each night.

When looking what to do after the June 27th flight had been resheduled, there was a trade to either fly the June 28th as is, or modify the July 27th flight plan for the 28th or a hybrid. It was decided that for the best science, we would re-fly the plan from June 27th and adjust it by 4 minutes (to account for the Earth’s motion around the Sun since 24 hrs earlier). Often targets are observed on multiple flight dates and many of the June 27th targets would be observed the following week. Whereas, a big mapping program would suffer from a “hole in coverage” if we did not recover that series of observations.

201707_GR_HECTOR_WX12_v1Flight Plan for the June28th SOFIA flight.

During the night, we found ourselves staring a long time into Sgr A*, pronounced ‘Sag A-Star’, which is bright radio source at the center of our Galaxy, which when viewed from Earth is in the constellation Sagittarius. Evidence has been mounting that Sgr A* is a supermassive blackhole, as telescopes have measured the speeds of stars orbiting that point in space at much higher speeds than any other star in the galaxy.

How can our SOFIA spectroscopic observations with the GREAT instrument shed some light on the mysteries of our Galaxy’s center? Well, we are probing a specific transition of atomic oxygen, whose emission is in the far-infrared and within the wavelength range of the GREAT spectrometer. Scientists are trying to measure the amount of neutral (not ionized) gas that is infalling into the black hole. With the high spectral resolution provided by the GREAT spectrometer scientists can actually measure the Doppler shift in the gas, and determine how fast the gas is moving and its direction of motion. This new 4th dimension (velocity) combined with assessing the amount of material (mass) will help put constraints on how the black hole at the center of our galaxy is being fed.


Image from the guide camera, centered on Sgr A* with a 6×6 degree field of view.

We can see the bright Milk Way nebulosity diagonal across this 6 x 6 degree image in the visible wide-field guide camera. (As a sense of the area in this image: The Full Moon’s diameter when viewed from Earth is ½ degree).

When we zoom into the middle 8×8 arcmin (1 arcmin is 1/60th of a degree) our narrow cone of light reveals a “boring” star field. However, this is one of the most exciting places in our galaxy when observed in the infrared.


To get a sense of how multi-wavelength views of our universe tells us different things, check out the Milky Way’s Galactic Center in the visible, infrared and x-rays.

Link here:

A never-before-seen view of the turbulent heart of our Milky Way galaxy, courtesy of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra.
A never-before-seen view of the turbulent heart of our Milky Way galaxy, courtesy of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra.


Sgr A* or Sagittarius A is indicated to the middle-right.

Now, if only we had infrared eyes to see this for ourselves. So we are thankful for having the SOFIA Telescope to allow us to continue to study your nearby universe as “our IR eyes.”