After thirteen years of near misses, political wrangling and budget overshoots, the 2.5 metre infrared telescope SOFIA has set off to take images of the infrared skies from an airplane. IR is readily absorbed by the atmosphere, and so the best infrared results are obtained from aircraft, balloons or on top of mountains, anything that gives that little less atmosphere between the telescope and the source. The advantages of a plane based telescope include the fact that it can be serviced, unlike the space observatories and it can get high up without the aid of a mountain, unlike the ground based observatories. It also is a little more controlled than a balloon based telescope. SOFIA involves a modified 747SP and the first instrument to fly was the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope, or FORCAST. SOFIA will offer enhanced resolution and a wider spectral range than the Spitzer space telescope, but with lower sensitivity due to the remaining atmosphere above it, for the next twenty years.
Meanwhile the Herschel Infrared Space Telescope has been out and about spotting bright galaxies. As part of the HerMES project, Herschel has been taking images of areas of the sky known to be windows where lots of distant galaxies can be seen. For the past decade or so, astronomers have been confused to see very bright distant galaxies, performing star formation at rates greater than expected from conventional theory. The new observations show that these brighter galaxies are packed at the centre of areas of the space that have a relatively high density of galaxies in them. These are much more bunched up than galaxies today, suggesting gravitational interactions and collisions are occurring that are known to set off starbursts – periods of high rates of star formation. General images from Herschel are now available for public viewing through the Online Showcase of Herschel Images website.