Villanova astronomer on a mission to get a much closer look at red giants

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    Villanova astronomy professor Edward Guinan is bound for the edges of outer space to get a closer look at dying red giant stars.  (Villanova University/John Shetron)

    Villanova astronomy professor Edward Guinan is bound for the edges of outer space to get a closer look at dying red giant stars. (Villanova University/John Shetron)

    A Villanova University astronomy professor is participating in a NASA mission this week to get a closer look at red giant stars.

    “I never thought I’d be flying on a mission like this,” said Edward Guinan of his participation in the space agency’s SOFIA efforts.

    SOFIA — or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — is the world’s largest airborne observatory. Housed in a remodeled 747 plane, it can make observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes.

    The plane can fly at 50,000 feet — about 5,000 feet higher than a passenger plane — and it has a huge telescope on board.

    “It flies above most of the atmosphere, basically, it flies above the water vapor. So that you have a clear view, a clear shot at your targets, at your stars,” said Guinan.

    The astronomer studies red giant stars, such as Betelgeuse, dying stars in the last stages of their stellar evolution. He’s interested in how much mass they are losing and how the dispersing particles are affecting the solar system.

    “These stars are losing like 100 Earth masses a year, almost, and this material flies out into space and new stars are formed from the material, new stars and planets,” he explained.

    The 10-hour flight is scheduled to leave Tuesday from Edwards Air Force Base in California.

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