Studying comets and Saturn’s moon Titan on NASA’s agenda for 2018

New Delhi: NASA has big plans for 2018. While the space agency already revealed its plans to launch a mission that will ‘touch the Sun’, it has now made another mission announcement.

NASA has said that its flying observatory Sofia is preparing for its 2018 campaign, which will include, among others, observations of celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions, comets and Saturn’s giant moon Titan.

In September 2017, NASA’s Cassini mission – a probe to study Saturn and its rings – came to an end after a fruitful duration of 13 years.

This will be the fourth year of full operations for Sofia, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, with observations planned between February 2018 and January 2019, NASA said on Friday.

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 Centre, DLR. Scientists believe that the observatory’s investigations will help them understand how magnetic fields affect the rate at which interstellar clouds condense to form new stars.

One programme using the observatory’s newest instrument, the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, called HAWC+, will help astronomers better understand how energetic, active black holes contribute to the most luminous, distant galaxies, NASA said.

These observations could 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. Sofia will also conduct observations to better understand how methane levels change with seasons on Mars.

Another team of researchers is planning to study comet 46P/Wirtanen 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. Researchers also plan to utilize Sofia’s mobility to study the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan by studying its shadow as it passes in front of a star during an eclipse-like event called an occultation.

The American space agency will also be celebrating its 60th year in 2018.