Imagine pointing a telescope out of your car window and scouring the heavens for new clues about the origins of the universe while cruising down the highway. That’s what SOFIA – NASA’s and the German Aerospace Center’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy - does only it’s mounted in the back of a Boeing-747 flying at 500 miles per hour at 40,000 feet.
(Scroll down for more photos from the SOFIA tour...)
Scientists studying the universe know there is much more to see besides the visible light seen by human eyes. That’s where this infrared telescope comes in. Looking for infrared radiation coming in from the cosmos isn’t as simple as pointing a telescope up to the heavens though, because water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs mid- and long-range infrared radiation before it reaches the ground.
Because water vapor is heavier than other gasses in Earth’s atmosphere, like oxygen and nitrogen, flying at 40,000 feet allows SOFIA to fly above about 99 percent of the water vapor in the atmosphere. The telescope has a clear view of the entire range of infrared radiation coming from space.
[NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin talks about how NASA programs like SOFIA can help inspire a new generation of students to study the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.]
Hertz spoke about the science behind SOFIA during a Sept. 22 tour of the aircraft at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. “SOFIA will always stay on the cutting edge of astronomy technology,” Hertz said, because a new instrument can be attached to the telescope before any flight.
[SOFIA stands for 'Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy' and is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center.]
“It will help us zoom in close on some of the most fundamental questions of the universe: Where did we come from, how was our solar system formed and what else is out there?” Garver said. “It is fitting that ‘sofia’ means wisdom in Greek,” she added.
In fact, SOFIA was working during its flight across the Atlantic. The 2.5 meter diameter
[The telescope is at the rear of the airplane with the
[This NASA image from August 2010 shows SOFIA in flight with the telescope door open. Photo credit: NASA]
The whole telescope assembly sits on a ball bearing that’s swimming on an oil film and when balanced with counter weights, it can be moved by just the touch of a finger. This allows it to move independent of the aircraft. “[When ]the aircraft is bouncing around, the telescope doesn’t follow,” Heyminck said. Motors compensate for the aircraft movement to keep the telescope steady even during heavy turbulence.
Though SOFIA has flown some science missions already, including one that returned new data about stars in the constellation Orion, it is still under development. The airborne observatory should be fully operational by 2014 and is expected to have at least a 20-year lifespan.
[NASA SOFIA program scientist Paul Hertz, far left, stands with NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and high school astronomy teacher Mary Blessing in front of SOFIA's tail.]
[A SOFIA pilot, at right in a tan jumpsuit, answers questions about the aircraft posed by children from military families who are touring SOFIA as part of the White House Joining Forces initiative. The initiative, headed by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, works to give back to service members and their families the "opportunities and support they have earned."]