07:08 AM

Airborne Observatory Views Star Forming Region

Researchers at NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Science Center, located at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and operated by the Universities Space Research Association, have used the space agency's flying telescope to take the highest resolution mid-infrared image of a region of rapid, massive star formation named W40. The W40 image was taken by the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument mounted in SOFIA - a highly modified 747SP airliner carrying a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches (2.5 meters). The FORCAST instrument was developed by a team led by Terry Herter of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The images of W40 were captured by the FORCAST camera at infrared wavelengths of 5.4, 24.2, and 34.8 microns, all of which are partially or completely blocked by water vapor in Earth's atmosphere and inaccessible to observatories even on high mountain tops.

"SOFIA is now beginning to produce world-class science, and this image is a peek at how the flying telescope will be able to open up new areas of understanding in astrophysics and astrobiology during the observatory's planned 20 year lifetime," said Dr. Fred Tarantino, USRA president. "The images speak volumes to the versatility of SOFIA's telescope and instruments and what a great tool it is for the astronomical community."

"W40 is a relatively nearby region of active star formation, but has been neglected over the years because it lies on the far side of a very dense cloud of gas and dust, making it difficult to view with optical telescopes," said Principal Investigator Ralph Shuping of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "Infrared observations of the region, however, allow us to peer through the dust and see a bright nebula and scores of young stars with at least six massive stars (6 - 20 times the mass of our Sun) forming at the center. Our observations with SOFIA will allow us to study the warm, dusty disks that may be turning into planetary systems surrounding these stars."

Researchers are attempting to find and study as many star-forming regions as possible to understand how stars are formed. There is evidence that at least 50 percent of the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy formed in massive clusters of hundreds to tens-of-thousands of star, and indications are that our solar system formed in such a cluster almost 5 billion years ago.

"Normal stars are relatively dim at the wavelengths measured by FORCAST, so any emission that shows up from the sources in our images will be due to dust heated to a few hundred Kelvin (roughly room temperature -- warm by astronomical standards)," said SOFIA Science Center senior science advisor and co-investigator of the W40 research Bill Vacca. "This emission is coming from dust in disks surrounding the stars and the SOFIA data will be combined with other observations, from both ground and space-based observatories, enabling us to determine some of the basic characteristics of these disks including size, thickness, and mass. In some cases, the dust and gas in these disks may be condensing into planetary systems."

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.

Founded in 1969, USRA is an independent research corporation with competencies that span space, Earth, and life sciences related disciplines, which are closely aligned with the nation's science and national security agencies. As a non-profit corporation with 105 major research university members, USRA's scientific and technical staff collaborate with over 300 universities annually. This depth of reach into the research community provides a unique platform for advancing science and technology.