19 Nov

SOFIA Seeks Secrets of Planetary Birth

right here: SOFIA Seeks Secrets of Planetary Birth

I know it’s silly to see an alternate spelling of my daughter’s name in this context and imagine her becoming a groundbreaking astronomer when she grows up. Or building a massive intelligent telescope for which she is the namesake. Romantic parents imagine their children as pioneers. Pragmatic parents know the lives of pioneers are anything but romantic and too often have the hero’s share of tragedy. There’s also a post-singularity angle I could work here, but not with my own kid.

It’s romantic enough to think of a giant jet in our stratosphere aiming its telescope into the hearts of planetary accretion disks.

Now to find cool science with the acronyms NOAH, JORDAN, ADAM, and TRAVIS.

Here’s an excerpt from the article linked above.

You don’t always have to have a rocket to do rocket science. Sometimes a mere airplane will do – that is, a mere Boeing 747 toting a 17-ton, 9-foot wide telescope named SOFIA.

Short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA will observe the universe while gliding through the stratosphere at 45,000 feet. When it begins operations next year, it will be the world’s biggest, most advanced airborne observatory.

“SOFIA will be able to locate the ‘planetary snowline,’ where water vapor turns to ice in the disk of dust and gas around young stars,” says Marcum. “That’s important because we think that’s where gas giants are born. The most massive planetary cores are fashioned [around the snowline] because conditions are best for rock and ice to build up.” (Sticky ice particles help form planets just as they help you make a snowball to hurl at an unsuspecting friend.)

“Once a large enough core forms, its gravity becomes strong enough to hold on to gas so more hydrogen and helium molecules can ‘stick.’ Then these large cores can grow into gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Otherwise, they remain as smaller rock-ice planets.”

“SOFIA will also be able to pinpoint where basic building blocks like oxygen, methane, and carbon dioxide2 are located within the protoplanetary disk.” Knowing where various substances are located in the disk will cast light on how they come together, from the “ground” up, to form planets.