This operational period known as 'Cycle 4' is a one-year-long observing period in which the telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), is scheduled for 106 flights between now and the end of January 2017.

"The Cycle 4 programme will make more than 550 hours of observations," said Pamela Marcum, NASA's SOFIA Project Scientist.

"We'll be studying objects spanning the full gamut of astronomical topics including planets, moons, asteroids and comets in our solar system; star and planet formation; extrasolar planets and the evolution of planetary systems; the interstellar medium and interstellar chemistry; the nucleus of the Milky Way galaxy, and nearby normal and active galaxies," said  Marcum said.

SOFIA's instruments observe infrared energy – one part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light, X-rays, radio waves and others.

Many objects in space, for example newborn stars, emit almost all their energy at infrared wavelengths and are undetectable when observed in ordinary visible light.

In other cases, clouds of gas and dust in space block visible light objects but allow infrared energy to reach Earth. In both situations, the celestial objects of interest can only be studied using infrared facilities like SOFIA.

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