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UW Student Among First Researchers on NASA Flying Observatory

June 15, 2011
University of Wyoming doctoral student Michael Lundquist aboard NASA's powerful airborne observatory, SOFIA. (James Mills Photo)

Flying at 41,000 feet elevation aboard the world's largest airborne astronomical observatory, University of Wyoming student Michael Lundquist gazes into a region of the universe that has never previously been observed in such detail. The data he collects will add valuable information in the scientific quest to determine how and why stars are formed.

A Ph.D. student in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy, Lundquist was selected to conduct research aboard NASA's powerful Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 20-ton telescope mounted in the rear fuselage of a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. Lundquist was among the first scientists chosen to fly on SOFIA to record infrared images of dust and gases in a region where the star-formation process is in its early stages.

The data, still being analyzed, will help scientists answer questions that cannot be answered by ground-based infrared telescopes. 

"You can't do this type of infrared imaging from the ground, you have to be above the atmosphere in the cold, high elevations that cool the telescope. This environment reduces the thermal noise, so you can get crystal clear images that have never been seen before," says Lundquist, whose research is directed by UW Associate Professor Chip Kobulnicky.

The data collected by UW will be combined with information from other sources, such as radio telescopes, to help  determine why and how stars are formed.

"I'm looking at intermediate mass star-forming regions, those areas that form stars that are between low-mass  stars such as our sun, and the much more massive stars that can be many times larger than the sun," he says. "SOFIA provides a new tool that fills a much-needed gap in the wavelengths we can examine to answer these questions."

He has a great deal of experience in infrared astronomical observations. Lundquist says the ability to use the university's Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO) on Jelm Mountain was a major reason he came to UW after obtaining B.S. degrees in physics and astrophysics at the University of Minnesota. One of his instructors there was Professor Robert Gehrz, who in the late 1970s spearheaded efforts to construct WIRO when he was a professor at UW.

When it was completed in 1977, WIRO was the world's largest aperture infrared telescope. It is still a significant research facility, used for a wide variety of research projects including the study of the formation of planets, stars, galaxies and black holes.

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