SOFIA Telescope Makes First Science Flight

by Nancy Atkinson on December 2, 2010

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, 747SP basks in the light of a full moon shining over California’s Mojave Desert. NASA photographer Tom Tschida shot this telephoto image on October 22, 2010 NASA Photo / Tom Tschida

SOFIA, NASA’s airplane-based Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy made its first science flight on Wednesday, to help demonstrate the aircraft’s potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe. The new observatory uses a modified 747 airplane to carry a German-built 2.5 meter (100 inch) reflecting telescope, and on its initial flight to gather science data, the plane flew for about 10 hours.

“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 anticipated to have a 20-year lifespan that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth and space-borne observatories.

Cruising at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, researchers hope to study how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow.

SOFIA is a 100-inch diameter infrared telescope, and the instruments can analyze 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 meter. For
comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.

The first three science flights, phase one of SOFIA’s early science program, will employ the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument developed by Cornell University and
led by principal investigator Terry Herter. FORCAST observes the mid-infrared spectrum from five to 40 microns.

Researchers used the FORCAST camera on SOFIA during a test flight two weeks ago to produce infrared images of areas within the Orion star-formation complex, a region of the sky for which more extensive
data were collected during the Nov. 30 flight. The image below is of this region. You can see more images at this link.

This infrared image of the heart of the Orion star-formation complex was taken by SOFIA’s FORCAST mid-infrared camera. Credit: NASA

SOFIA flies from NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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