NASA’s flying observatory is preparing its 2018 observing campaign, which will include observations of celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions, comets and Saturn’s giant moon Titan. This will be the fourth year of full operations for Sofia, with observations planned between February 2018 and January 2019, the US space agency said. Sofia is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100 -inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. The observatory’s newest instrument, the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, called HAWC+, will continue research with its polarimeter, a device that measures the alignment of incoming light waves. According to scientists, these investigations will help them understand how magnetic fields affect the rate at which interstellar clouds condense to form new stars. One such programme will use the instrument to understand the impact magnetic fields have on stars forming inside a dark cloud, a stellar nursery filled with dust and molecules, called L1448. Another program using the HAWC+ instrument will help astronomers better understand how energetic, active black holes contribute to the most luminous, distant galaxies. These observations will help them learn whether the luminosity of these active black holes is driven by star formation or accretion of material onto the central black hole, NASA said.
The researchers will continue to search for methane on Mars. Sofia will conduct observations to better understand how methane levels change with the Red Planet’s seasons. Another team of researchers is planning to study comet 46P/Writanen as it passes close to the Earth, to search for clues in the comet’s dust that may help better understand the evolution of the early solar system, the US space agency said.