Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Airborne telescope gives astronomers a new angle on Orion

A new image taken by NASA's airborne telescope gives astronomers another look at the star centered in Orion's sword.

[The image on the right, released last week, is a mosaic of mid-infrared images of the Orion Nebula region taken by SOFIA. The image at the left is a visible light image of the same region taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; the center image is a near-infrared look from the European Southern Observatory. Photo credit: (left) NASA, ESA, HST, AURA, STScI, O'Dell & Wong; (middle) ESO, McCaughrean et al.; (right) NASA, DLR, SOFIA, USRA, DSI, FORCAST Team.]

Astronomers already have visible and near-infrared images of the Orion Nebula - the area in the middle of the sword "hanging" from the belt in the constellation Orion. Now, they have a new look at the region: Mid-infrared. The mid-infrared images show details that are undetectable in the near-infrared and visible images.

The new image is significant because some mid-infrared wavelengths, like those dyed red in the image at right above (representing 37.1 microns, for those interested) can't be seen from an Earth-based telescope nor from any of today's space telescopes.

[The Orion Nebula known also as Messier 42 - or M42 on this map - can be seen in the bottom third of this star map. The nebula itself is visible to the naked eye: It's the middle star in Orion's sword just below Orion's belt. Photo credit: Torsten Bronger.]

The image comes from a new flying telescope that's mounted in the rear of a Boeing 747 called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The joint observatory project between the United States and Germany is studying the development of galaxies and how stars and planetary systems form and evolve. SOFIA just went operational a few months ago and this new mosaic was created from photos taken in December.

[A look inside the Boeing 747. Photo credit: NASA,Tom Tschida.]

The observatory flies to high altitudes of around 40,000 ft. where the atmosphere is far thinner than on the surface. Below this height, water vapor in the air blocks much of the infrared radiation coming through the atmosphere, making it invisible to telescopes on Earth.

[NASA's SOFIA Boeing 747 flies over Southern California during test flights in July. The door over the telescope is open. Photo credit: NASA, Jim Ross.]

SOFIA allows astronomers to see mid-infrared radiation coming in from space. Near-infrared radiation, whose wavelengths are seen using night-vision goggles, is closest to visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum. Mid-infrared, as you would have guessed, is in the middle of the infrared part of the spectrum, closer to microwaves than to visible light.

Nebulas are gas clouds where stars form. Scientists study the Orion nebula since it is one of the closest nebulas to Earth. Being able to see different wavelengths of radiation - like mid-infrared light - gives scientists a more thorough picture of what they are looking at. SOFIA gives them more pieces of the nebula puzzle.

[SOFIA's Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) is seen up close during ground testing in California in May. Photo credit: NASA, Tom Tschida.]

For more about the new image at top, read the SOFIA press release.

For more about the SOFIA mission, check out the German SOFIA website.

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