Airborne Observatory Passes Next Stage of Testing

by Nicholos Wethington on January 21, 2010

If you’ve ever been out observing and the clouds roll in, undoubtedly you’ve thought, “If I could only get above all of these stupid clouds, the sky would look great!” Well, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is capable of doing just that: SOFIA is an infrared telescope mounted on a 747SP airliner that used to be a passenger plane for Pan Am. By mounting the telescope on an airplane, NASA is able to fly it into the stratosphere, and get past all of the annoying gases and water vapor that get in the way when making observations.

SOFIA is still undergoing a battery of testing to ensure proper operation of the telescope before it starts observations. In December of last year, the telescope was taken up and the doors to the bay where it is mounted were opened. On January 15th, the telescope was flown to 35,000 feet (10.6 km) and the doors were left closed to test an updated gyroscope that was installed on the ‘scope.

These latest tests were designed to test how well the telescope can stabilize itself, because an airplane flying at 41,000 feet (12.5km) – the altitude at which many observations will be made – isn’t exactly a steady mount for a telescope. Gyroscopic stabilizers counteract the movement of the airplane to steady the telescope for observation.

During the test, the ability of the entire system to operate at cooler temperatures was established as well. The temperature for this latest test hovered around -15 degrees Celsius (+5 degrees Fahrenheit) even with the doors closed.

The telescope itself has a 2.5 meter (8.2 foot) mirror, with a 0.4 meter (1.3 foot) secondary mirror. The range of wavelengths that SOFIA can “see” is 0.3 microns to 1.6mm, meaning it’s capable of taking images in the infrared and submillimeter.

Some of the objects and phenomena that SOFIA will be observing include proto-planetary disks and planet formation, star formation, the chemical composition of other galaxies and interstellar cloud physics. An extensive description of SOFIA’s capabilities can be found on their site here.

SOFIA still has a few tests to undergo, and will be fully operational come 2014. In the next few years basic science observations will start up, and then other instruments will be added to the observatory. SOFIA is a collaboration between NASA and a German telescope partner, Deutsches SOFIA Institute.

Source: NASA press release

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