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NASA's Aerial Telescope Chases Neptune's Moon Triton

NASA's SOFIA observatory at Daytona International Airport. Photo: Brendan Byrne
NASA's SOFIA observatory at Daytona International Airport. Photo: Brendan Byrne

NASA’s aerial telescope will chase the shadow of Neptune’s moon tonight on one of its first missions flying from Florida.

The SOFIA observatory is a modified 747 jumbo jet that flies high in the Earth’s stratosphere to give astronomers better images of distant stars.

Thursday's observation will try to capture images of what’s called an occultation, kind of like an eclipse. When Neptune’s moon Triton passes in front of a nearby star, astronomers will measure what its atmosphere is made of.

Observing from the air gives astronomers a clearer picture, says Chief Scientific Adviser Eric Beckland.

“The clouds are really a factor, so we’re trying to get above the clouds. We also want to fly pinpoint to the exact point of where the occultation will occur so flying really helps out a lot,” said Beckland on a practice mission earlier this week.

SOFIA has flown over 400 missions. The aircraft’s first flight from Florida was earlier this week on a practice run for tonight’s observation, taking off from Daytona Beach International Airport.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to Central Florida in 2005 to attend the University of Central Florida. He began working at WMFE as a college intern where he discovered his love for public radio.