The B747SP aircraft on a test flight above Waco, Texas, in 1998. SOFIA is the largest airborne observatory in the world, studying the universe at infrared wavelengths, capable of making observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest ground-based telescopes. Credit: NASA

This graphical representation from the SOFIA Science Center compares two infrared images of the heart of the Orion nebula captured by the FORCAST camera on the SOFIA airborne observatory’s telescope with a wider image of the same area from the Spitzer space telescope. Credit: SOFIA image — James De Buizer / NASA / DLR / USRA / DSI / FORCAST; Spitzer image — NASA/JPL

Searching Distant Stars for Complex Molecules

Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute press release
Posted: 12/12/12

Summary: On a series of nighttime flights, astrobiologists will soon use an airborne observatory to search newly born stars for molecules essential to the origins of life.

A team of astrobiology researchers — including two from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — will use a series of nighttime flights on an airborne observatory to search newly born stars for the presence of precursors to life.

The scientists, led by Douglas Whittet, director of the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer, will use the observatory’s infrared absorption spectroscopy capabilities to search for a suite of molecules in clouds of dust surrounding five young stars. Their work is part of the first season, or cycle, of research to be performed aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the largest airborne observatory in the world.

A partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, SOFIA consists of an extensively modified Boeing 747SP aircraft carrying a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters (100 inches). The airborne observatory, based at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in California, began a planned-20 year lifetime with its first cycle from November 2012 to December 2013.

“We’re interested in how the matter that you need to make planetary life came to be: Where did it come from and how was it formed? And since it happened here in our solar system, is it likely to happen elsewhere as well?” said Whittet, also a professor of physics. “We can’t go back in time to observe our solar system when it was born, but we can look at other regions that we believe are similar and use them as analogs for the early solar system.”

Read more: Searching Distant Stars for Complex Molecules — Astrobiology Magazine.

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