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.


Exploring a bit of the Garden City

July 2, 2017

For those who know me, I am pretty much a workaholic, especially when I get into my projects. And this SOFIA gig is no different. I had no idea I have been here a week already and not explored beyond my hotel and the lab. So it was time to check out Christchurch, the Garden City.

To first glance it’s quite larger than I expected, and it had the welcome feel of being back in England. That said, that could be because they drive on the left here, speak English, with many street names sound like they came out of London’s A-Z. The country does pride itself on its independence from the British Empire of yonder, although when you walk among Christchurch I could not quite shake the feeling of being back in England.

Take the old site of Canterbury College, with its Gothic Revival stonework. Most of the site is under scaffolding (another fine remembrance of British cityscapes) due to reconstruction after the devastating earthquake of February 2011 that went right through the center of Christchurch. Even after 6years the city is still rebuilding, with lots of vacant lots of what had been most of the historical brick and mortar buildings of New Zealand’s past.

The old Canterbury Collage is where Earnest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, worked for a ti,e.  And he worked in den! Every scientists needs a den.


The Container Mall was a fun find, being built as a temporary location for businesses in an area of the city that had been decimated by the 2011 earthquake. From the audio tour I learned that finally those businesses are moving onto to more permament locations.

Container Mall

The Botanical Gardens were a lovely find, even in winter. They had a nice Victorian-era greenhouses hosting the more humid plants. I giggled as I saw many of the foliage there are common houseplants one can pick up in any garden store in the USA. The rose garden was properly trimmed back to its winter state, and the collection of ferns and tropical plants in the New Zealand garden gave me a sense that there is much more diverse flora in New Zealand than one picks up in the cityscapes.


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The next day when I re-explored the city via tram with my friend Stefanie who was out to fly on SOFIA this coming week, we stumbled against the Wizard of Christchurch, a known entity who travels the city telling stories.


When I look back at the weekend exploring with no set agenda, thinking about things, reflecting on the tough year my family has gone through and still is, and thinking about how this city has survived and is rebuilding, one can take the message from the Art Gallery to heart – Everything’s Going to Be Alright.



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.”

All dressed up and no-where to go, until tomorrow

June 27, 2017

The team readies for the second flight in the week’s flight series. Tonight we are to gaze into the Small Magellanic Cloud, the circumnuclear zone around our Milky Way’s Galactic Center plus a peak at some low mass protostars, the envelopes of interstellar clouds, and massive young stellar objects.

We complete the mission briefing, and get on the plane, mingling with the scientist and operators on board waiting for the all-clear.

Mission Brief Flight #411

While we waited, I talked with Telescope Operator Sam who started working on SOFIA a few months ago. He came from the world of ground-based astronomical instrument building and operations and got the “operations-bug.” He reflected on how different the SOFIA telescope is compared to a ground-based observatory, and how each leg of each flight essentially “commissions the telescope anew”, doing a new pointing assessment in an environment of changing pressure, something a ground-based or space-based telescope never really has to deal with. I walked with a deeper appreciation for the German-designed and built telescope on the SOFIA Observatory. It is not just one-of-a-kind: it is an engineering marvel one-of-a-kind telescope.

We had a minor issue with the aircraft during the prep checklist sequence and we had to reschedule the flight. It is heart-braking as the operations and science teams have spent weeks of intense time to get each flight ready to go to optimize the science. Each flight is essentially its own “science mission.”

Things do happen with aircraft and when the issue cannot be resolved in a period long to allow us to get back on the skies to intercept our science timeline, we reschedule. Tonight’s science plan gets flown tomorrow night, with a slight delay of four minutes to account for the shifting of sky positions (due to the Earth’s revolution around the Sun in a 24 hr period).

The operations team uses the post-debrief to educate handover items to the ops team for tomorrow’s flight. The stars will be there waiting for us.

Southern Lights Just Take Your Breath Away

Monday June 26, 2017

So what’s up tonight for the flying Observatory? Shocks, jets, and all things molecular gas. We’re looking at the Central Molecular Zone (region around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy), young protostars, massive young stellar objects, and using background star forming regions as lightposts to look at the “stuff between the stars,” aka the Diffuse Interstellar Medium. Goran, the Instrument Scientist for the spectrometer aboard SOFIA tonight, in his science brief before we boarded ,described it more eloquently as measuring the properties of many “translucent clouds.” (SPOILER: I never thought I would be seeing “translucent clouds” a bit closer to home.)

As with any SOFIA flight, there is a timeline of preparation activities that is followed to ready the plane for science. Aircraft items like refueling and coordination of power transfers need to be scheduled. The crew meets to go over departure and arrival options. The mission team gets together for an overview of the flight and any one flying has to be present for head count.

SOFIA Mission brief for flight #410

Soon you find its time to board and the clock is ticking. I found myself fortunate to be in the cockpit again, this time for departure, and pilots Paul & Dean with flight engineer Moose (Marty) certainly were being kept busy with air traffic control. For SOFIA, taking off within a narrow time window is crucial for the flight’s success in terms of the science observations. If there are delays with takeoff, the mission directors need to direct the pilots to intercept the science timelines later and that typically means less science. Not something to make into a habit. At the same time if the plane taxied too early they could find themselves in a queue of planes and then find themselves late in the actual takeoff. It was a fine temporal balance and Paul & Dean handled it smoothly.

The flight plan takes us very south, in fact, in the flight we reached 64.534 deg. S. Latitude.


And this delighted us to a show of the southern lights!

Southern Lights seen from SOFIA, location about 63 deg S, 170 deg, 0 E.

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At the end of the 10+ hour flight, the science team disembarked with high quality data at their wavelengths of science need thanks to the very low water vapor at 43,000 feet. New insights into the role of atomic gas in extreme conditions, like at our galactic center, in jets and outflows of protostars and in the regions of massive young stellar objects.