NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is an airborne observatory that flies into the stratosphere at an altitude of about 40,000 feet to capture infrared images of the cosmos. The observatory operates at those altitudes because it bypasses a significant portion of the atmosphere that blocks infrared light.
SOFIA has been used to take new infrared images of the brightest portions of the center of the galaxy. Past attempts with other infrared telescopes were unable to capture the regions because of the intense brightness that led to overexposed images.
SOFIA can take short exposures, reducing the chance of oversaturation. The team says that they are filling in the most active star-formation regions of the galactic center that were missing in past images. The observations took eight runs with team members on the aircraft during the flights to look at the data.
The new panoramic image shows SOFIA data that was taken in wavelengths of 25 and 37 microns colored green and blue, respectively. The data is overlaid on previous imagery taken by the Herschel Space Observatory and by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer is set to be decommissioned on January 30, 2020.
The SOFIA maps reveal dust that was heated by many of the most massive stars in the region. Some of those massive stars are as much as 100 times more massive than the sun. Several of the dust features had not been fully resolved in previous infrared maps. The new detail allows the bright sources to be studied at a level of detail not possible before. SOFIA can see through cool dust and image the signature of warm dust in the galactic center. The map will also serve as a guide for the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2021.