Airborne observatory reaches milestone

SOFIA observatory

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a modified Boeing 747SP, equipped with a 2.5-metre-diameter telescope.

NASA’s STRATOSPHERIC OBSERVATORY for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, has completed the first of three science flights to demonstrate the aircraft’s potential to make discoveries about the universe.

SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet. At that altitude, it is above most of the atmosphere that interferes with astronomical observations.

In particular, it is above most of the water vapour that inhibits observations at infrared wavelengths.

It will enable researchers to better understand a wide range of astronomical phenomena including how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow.

“These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIA’s development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science observations,” said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse.

“We anticipate a number of important discoveries from this unique observatory, as well as extended investigations of discoveries by other space telescopes.”

SOFIA is fitted with a 2.5-metre-diameter telescope that views the sky through a hatch toward the back of the aircraft.

The telescope’s instruments can analyse light from a wide range of celestial objects, including warm interstellar gas and dust of bright star forming regions, by observing wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 microns. (A micron equals one millionth of a metre.) For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.

The airborne observatory is an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR).

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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