An F/A-18 aircraft monitors the flight of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy as it successfully completes another test flight leading to the first inflight observations with the world's largest airborne infrared telescope. (NASA Photo / Jim Ross) Scientists and technicians are preparing the long-awaited Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy for a flight to validate and verify its science capabilities, during which the world's largest airborne telescope will make its first in-flight infrared observations.
Media representatives had an opportunity to learn more about the aircraft at a special event April 20 at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, where the highly modified Boeing 747SP is based.
"Behind me is a near Hubble-class observatory right here in California. It's pretty amazing. It will soon bring world-class scientists to Palmdale and California to unlock some of the secrets of the universe and our own solar system," said Bob Meyer, SOFIA program manager for NASA.
The SOFIA is unique not only because it houses a 17-ton infrared airborne telescope in its rear fuselage, but also because it will fly above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere, which obscures visibility for ground-based infrared telescopes. Researchers will also use the telescope to peer through space dust to reveal some secrets that will "open the infrared window to the universe," Meyer added.
Because the SOFIA telescope is mounted in an aircraft, the latest science instrumentation can be used as it becomes available. Instrumentation in space-based telescopes lack the same ease of access.
Media representatives get an opportunity to learn more about the NASA 747SP and its telescope, which is nestled in the rear fuselage of the aircraft. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) Steve Schmidt, DAOF director, welcomed attendees and turned the program over to speakers affiliated with the SOFIA program, including Meyer; John Carter, aircraft project manager; Thomas Keilig, DSI telescope assembly/science instrument manager; and Erick Young, science mission operations director for the Universities Space Research Association.
Young said the SOFIA offers "an amazing amount of promise" because it will help scientists gather more information on astronomical objects that will now be easier to study. Dust, for example, will no longer obscure information on processes such as star formation. In addition, the SOFIA telescope will also be used to study the chemical nature of molecules.
"Trying to understand the nature of this star-formation process is very high on the intellectual-questions list," Young said. "We're very close to realizing a decades-long dream."
The team has worked tirelessly to prepare and complete research flights to ensure that the door to the cavity housing the telescope works properly, permitting the SOFIA telescope to undertake its mission. The work is going well and the SOFIA is "one of the truly remarkable airborne machines of our time," Carter said.
It won't be long before the "first light" work of the program, as a telescope's inaugural work is known in astronomy circles.
"We're going to install the instruments and do the 'first light in flight' in about six to eight weeks, and then the real adventure begins," Carter said.
That's an adventure Keilig welcomes. "It [the telescope] will give us an unprecedented view when the door is open."
Keilig also thanked the team for its work.
"Every member of this team has gone above and beyond their normal duties to bring us where we are today - ready for the first airborne observations ever taken with SOFIA," he said.
The SOFIA airborne observatory is a joint venture of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA supplied the 747SP aircraft that houses the infrared telescope, which was designed and built in Germany. L-3 Communications Integrated Systems made the major modifications to the aircraft and installed the telescope under contract to NASA.
The program is managed at Dryden, where mission systems were installed and integrated, and flight tests of the observatory are being conducted. Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., jointly manages the program's science component with USRA and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut in Germany.