SOFIA: The Mission

On to the second of two NASA missions that will be covered in the #NASATweetup on February 11th, the SOFIA Mission.

Imagine taking a Boeing 747, putting a 20-ton telescope in the rear section with a door that can expose it to the heavens during flight, and then flying it anywhere from 39,000 to 45,000 feet (that would be the stratosphere) on a regular basis. You don’t have to imagine it, because it’s real. It’s SOFIA, the Stratosphereic Observatory For Infrared Astronomy and it’s the world’s largest airborne astronomical observatory. How big is the telescope? It’s 100 inches in diameter! You can see how it looks inside the 747 in the picture just to the left.SOFIA joins other innovative telescopes in space: the Hubble, the Spitzer (launched in 2003), the Herschel (launched in 2009) and the James Webb (to be launched in 2014). SOFIA is the only telescope that can see certain wavelengths in the mid-infrared range, and that will help fill in gaps about how stars and planets are born, how things form in space, and how black holes grow.

Why fly a telescope way up high or launch a telescope into space? Water vapor in Earth’s lower atmosphere limits what ground-based telescopes can see in the infrared and sub-millimeter spectral range. Higher is better for SOFIA because flying in the stratosphere gets the telescope above the  99% of the water vapor in the lower atmosphere, meaning SOFIA will provide better image quality and more sensitive observations than any ground-based telescope.

The advantage of SOFIA over permanently flying telescopes like the Hubble is that scientists can change or adjust SOFIA’s telescope fittings for each series of flights. For example, the first science flight used the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) to take infrared pictures of the Messier 42 nebula in the constellation Orion. In February, the dual-channel German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) will be installed for three flights, where scientists will observe submillimeter and far-infrared spectral frequency bands in the intersteller medium (ISM). The ISM is the gas and dust in space between star systems in a galaxy; it’s also the place where stars form, so it’s a pretty interesting thing to study. You can learn more about the ISM by clicking on the link in this sentence.

You might have heard of SOFIA’s first science flight, since it just happened in November 2010, a 10-hour flight out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Palmdale, CA. I thought it was quite cool when I read about it and never dreamed I would be getting the chance in 2011 to meet some of the SOFIA team, which is based at the NASA Ames Research Center.


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