The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy aircraft was starting the second half of an overnight mission on 28th January 2015. It turned north for a flight to western Oregon, then back home to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. On the way, pilots turned the plane to focus the telescope at a nearby star. Iowa State University’s Massimo Marengo and other astronomers were aboard to monitor the mission and collect infrared data about the star.
The star is called epsilon Eridani and is approximately 10 light years away from the sun. It’s like our sun, but one-fifth the age. Since 2004, Marengo, an Iowa State associate professor of physics and astronomy, and other astronomers have been studying the star and its planetary system. In a 2009 scientific paper, the astronomers used data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to illustrate the star’s disk of fine dust and debris left over from the formation of planets and the collisions of asteroids and comets. They reported that the disk had separate belts of asteroids, resembling the asteroid and Kuiper belts of our solar system.
A new scientific paper, just published online by The Astronomical Journal, uses SOFIA and Spitzer data to confirm there are separate inner and outer disk structures. Kate Su, an associate astronomer at the University of Arizona and the university’s Steward Observatory, is the paper’s lead author. Marengo is one of the paper’s nine co-authors. Marengo stated that the research findings are crucial because they confirm epsilon Eridani is a good model of the early days of our solar system and can provide hints at how our solar system evolved.
Determining the disk structure was a difficult task which took several years and detailed computer modeling. The astronomers had to separate the disk’s faint emission from the much brighter light coming from the star.