When Skarleth Motino flew from Honduras to Washington, D.C., in 2016 to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics, she didn’t think just two years later she would be flying around the world in an airborne observatory.

In September, Motino will board NASA’s specially designed Boeing 747SP called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or, SOFIA. This “airborne observatory” contains an infrared telescope that Montino and her Catholic University research team are using to take images of nearby galaxies.

“We are trying to understand how galaxies evolve over time. The idea is that we can compare nearby galaxies with distant galaxies to see how they can be characterized and compared with each other,” said Motino.

“By looking at galaxies, we can start to understand the changes so that eventually we can have a general model of the whole universe.”
– Skarleth Motino

Despite the relative proximity of the galaxies Motino is studying, they are still too far away to see clearly with a traditional telescope that operates using visible light. Infrared light, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that SOFIA observes, captures changes in an object’s energy state more precisely than visible light. Through observation of the infrared emissions of a galaxy’s star formations, Motino and her team will create a model of how the galaxy has changed over time.

The ultimate goal is rather grand: “We want to understand the evolution of the universe,” said Motino. “There are many models for how our universe is changing, but we still don’t know many details about the evolution. By looking at galaxies, we can start to understand the changes so that eventually we can have a general model of the whole universe.”

After completing a research project with a U.S. physicist as part of her bachelor’s degree, Motino contacted the Honduran embassy about graduate school abroad. The embassy informed her of a special partnership it had with Catholic University to streamline the visa application process for graduate students. Motino jumped at the opportunity and has been adapting to life in the United States ever since.

“At the beginning it is hard because you have to adjust to many things — the weather, the food, the people, the culture is different. But there are many international students in the apartment building where I live and we kind of feel like we are family here. We do many things together on the weekends, like go downtown to the city or even just cooking for one another” said Motino.

If Motino’s work is successful, her team hopes to commission another telescope — this one in Chile — to take even more precise images in the future. Though her work takes her all over the world, looking up is a constant reminder for Motino that we’re all under the same stars.