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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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Airborne telescope sees “first light”

Image of SOFIA in flight with the telescope door open

Image of SOFIA in flight with its telescope door open. The converted Boeing 747SP flies above 99% of atmospheric water vapour, affording an excellent view of the infrared sky.

  • Telescope fitted inside a Boeing 747
  • Flies above 99% of atmospheric water vapour
  • Detects infrared wavelengths from space

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint program by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, achieved a major milestone May 26, with its first in-flight night observations.

“With this flight, SOFIA begins a 20-year journey that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth and space-borne observatories,” said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“It clearly sets expectations that SOFIA will provide us with “Great Observatory”-class astronomical science.”

The highly modified SOFIA Boeing 747SP jetliner fitted with a 2.5-metre-diameter reflecting telescope took off from its home base at the Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California, of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre.

The in-flight personnel consisted of an international crew from NASA, the Universities Space Research Association, Cornell University and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) in Stuttgart.

During the six-hour flight, at altitudes up to 35,000 feet, the crew of 10 scientists, astronomers, engineers and technicians gathered telescope performance data at consoles in the aircraft’s main cabin.

“Wind tunnel tests and supercomputer calculations made at the start of the SOFIA program predicted we would have sharp enough images for front-line astronomical research,” said SOFIA project scientist Pam Marcum of NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California.

View of the telescope through SOFIA's door

View of the 2.5-metre telescope through SOFIA's side door.

“A preliminary look at the first light data indicates we indeed accomplished that.”

Stable and sensitive

The stability and precise pointing of the German-built telescope met or exceeded the expectations of the engineers and astronomers who put it through its paces during the flight.

“The crowning accomplishment of the night came when scientists on board SOFIA recorded images of Jupiter,” said USRA SOFIA senior science advisor Eric Becklin. “The composite image from SOFIA shows heat, trapped since the formation of the planet, pouring out of Jupiter’s interior through holes in its clouds.”

The highly sensitive Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) used for these initial observations was operated in flight by its builders, a team led by Cornell’s Terry Herter. FORCAST captures in minutes images that would require many hour-long exposures by ground-based observatories blocked from a clear infrared view by water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere.

SOFIA’s operational altitude, which is above more than 99 percent of that water vapour, enables it to receive 80 percent or more of the infrared light accessible to space observatories.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.