Dr Stuart Ryder with the SOFIA jet.

Astronomer flies high to spy on star formation

Dr Stuart Ryder is venturing into the stratosphere on a NASA jet to study the birthplace of massive stars.

Macquarie University astronomer Dr Stuart Ryder is in New Zealand to hitch a ride on a NASA jet and take a closer look at how stars are born in one of the most active stellar nurseries ever seen.

“We’re looking at a molecular cloud called BYF73, which is collapsing in on itself at extremely high speeds and forming massive stars,” says Stuart, who is an Adjunct Fellow with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Macquarie University.

The Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a Boeing 747SP passenger jet converted to house a 2.5 metre telescope and a range of instruments for infrared astronomy.

By flying up to 14 kilometres into the sky, SOFIA gets a clearer view of infrared light that is blocked from reaching ground level by the atmosphere.

The aircraft, operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, is based in California most of the time. But once a year it sets up shop in Christchurch, New Zealand, to fly missions looking at the southern skies.

This year SOFIA is carrying a new instrument called the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera Plus (HAWC+), which allows astronomers to study light in the far infrared spectrum and measure its polarisation.

“We want to look at the polarisation of the light coming from BYF73, which tells us about its magnetic field and might explain why the cloud is collapsing so quickly,” Stuart says. “It would help us understand how these stars form.”

Stuart has already flown two missions and – if he’s lucky – might have the chance to fly a third time this Thursday night.