Open For Business: SOFIA Science Missions Are Officially Under Way
A Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Science and Education Media Day held June 8 at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility featured 11 speakers detailing the SOFIA program, its science missions and educational-outreach activities.
The event was held to announce that the SOFIA is ready for business and initial science flights are complete. A new series of 23 flights is under way, including those on which educators selected for science missions have flown.
The SOFIA program is managed at Dryden, and Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., manages the program's science component. German partners developed the 100-inch infrared telescope that is housed behind a large door in the aft of the host NASA 747SP.
Because the atmosphere's water vapor obscures Earth-bound observations of the infrared spectrum, "The SOFIA makes observations that are not possible from the Earth," said Bob Meyer, SOFIA program manager. The flying observatory has the advantage of being able to be aloft about six hours at a time above the atmosphere while making scientific observations of the heavens.
Meyer said the observatory's modifications are about complete, most subsystems are ready and, essentially, "The SOFIA is open for business and can begin unlocking the secrets of the universe for generations to come."
Alois Himmes is SOFIA program manager for NASA's German partner, the German Aerospace Center, or DLR.
Himmes explained that the Germans are responsible for 20 percent of SOFIA operations, including providing astronomers as well as mechanics and engineers to service the German-built telescope, the world's largest airborne infrared telescope built to date.
"We make a seamless team," Himmes said of the joint NASA/German operation.
Dryden Center Director David McBride congratulated the SOFIA team on its achievements, noting that the road to developing the flying observatory has been hard and long. Preparing it for its missions entailed "the most complex [aircraft] integration - as complex as any of our X-planes."
Steve Zornetzer, Ames associate director, recognized the challenges of preparing the aircraft and integrating the 17-ton telescope. "Dryden has risen to the engineering challenges," he said.
Early science flights with the SOFIA included a mission flown the night before the event and, "These early science flights show exciting data were gained," he said.
Zornetzer mentioned Ames' legacy with flying telescopes, which paved the way for the SOFIA. A modified C-141 with a 36-inch reflective telescope called the Kuiper Airborne Observatory flew for 20 years and was retired in the mid-1990s to free up funds for the SOFIA effort. Also, a Learjet in the late 1960s flew with a 12-inch reflective telescope.
An airborne observatory has the advantage of being able to be dispatched anywhere in the world to optimize scientific opportunities. Also, instruments on board can be modified and changed out continually, enabling missions and training for personnel to evolve and helping inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
Michael Bicay, director of science at Ames, said the SOFIA is a unique facility. "You will see an airplane with a hole in it," he said. "I see something different. I see an observatory."
Bicay then noted some of the SOFIA's most valuable attributes, including the ability to add new instruments throughout its lifetime, development of data processing and analysis capabilities, careful planning of astronomical observations and - by including teachers on science missions - inspiring young people in science-related careers.
"We are looking forward to scientific discoveries that will be SOFIA's legacy," he added.
Recalling the legacy of airborne telescopes, Bicay acknowledged the recent passing of Frank Low, who observed with a 12-inch telescope on a NASA Learjet, and of Jim Elliot, who identified the rings around Uranus while on board the Kuiper.
The SOFIA reached key milestones in the past year that included the first light through the telescope, in May 2010, and the first science flight, on Nov. 30, said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist.
"The first phase [of science missions] is complete. Now, basic science has begun with the 23 flights that started last month. We fly high above the water vapor and come home after every mission, where we can service and upgrade instruments," Marcum said.
So far, expectations have been exceeded, said Terry Herter, principal investigator with the Cornell University-built Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, or FORCAST, instrument.
"At every stage, things have worked better than expected," he said. "It has been fun, and challenging enough to be interesting."
Herter, who had just hours before the event completed a SOFIA mission, said the one-of-a-kind flying observatory collected images on the very first science flight more than a year ago, when there was no guarantee that would be possible, and the observatory has continued to impress ever since.
Herter also said he was lucky to be able to be among the first to use the observatory, and that size does matter in the case of the SOFIA telescope because more detail can be captured with it; this level of detail sheds light on key astronomical areas of interest such as star formation - the telescope "peers" through dirt and dust into the center of the Milky Way galaxy, looking at phenomena such as black holes, newly born and dying stars and details at the galactic center, which is 30 times farther away from Earth than is Earth's nearest star.
In the future, the SOFIA will be used for a wide range of programs encompassing planetary science, star formation, stellar evolution, the interstellar medium and others, he said.
Rolf Güsten of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and principal investigator for the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies spectrometer, or GREAT, talked about some of the science that his instrument is expected to achieve.
The GREAT works in a manner similar to that of a radio receiver, with which a person can tune in to hear the station they choose. With his spectrometer, Güsten said, he is "tuning in the building blocks of the universe" with a radio 100,000 times more sensitive than one tuning into a listener's musical choice on Earth.
"All molecules have characteristic frequency footprints," he explained. The spectrometer focuses on finding those footprints with far-infrared spectroscopy, examining an under-used part of the electromagnetic spectrum that offers astronomers the greatest promise but for which technology to study it is only now becoming available to scientists.
An April 1 science mission with the GREAT instrument captured photons of a star-forming cloud in M-17 SW. Güsten said he and members of the astronomical community are awaiting the GREAT instrument's use in seeking deuterium, an element considered a chemical clock of the evolution of the universe that dates back to the big-bang event.
As scientists on board the SOFIA redefine what people know about the universe, teachers will be watching from seats adjacent to the researchers to see how the science is conducted. Educators will take what they learn back to their classrooms for use in inspiring the next generation of scientists.
Six teachers already have flown science missions as part of the 2011 U.S. Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program - flights SOFIA officials initially did not believe would start until late in 2012. Two of the teachers, Marita Beard of Branham High School, San Jose, Calif., and Kathleen Fredette of Desert Willow Intermediate School in Palmdale, Calif., talked to media representatives about their experiences and what they hope to bring back to their classroom.
Teachers chosen for the program submitted proposals detailing how their participation would improve learning opportunities for their students. Once selected, there also were training requirements as well as a requirement for maintaining a continuing commitment to the SOFIA program.
Dana Backman, SOFIA education and outreach manager, and Dörte Mehlert, education outreach manager for the German SOFIA Institute, or DSI, explained that the SOFIA is the first airborne observatory designed to accommodate visitors. An area inside the aircraft is set aside to allow people to witness the way the scientific process really works and the blood, sweat and tears - and sleepless nights - researchers endure to bring knowledge to the world.
Eventually, guests of the program also will include university academics at work on compelling research, additional educators, journalists, museum docents and leaders of amateur astronomy organizations.
Erick Young, SOFIA Science mission operations director for the Universities Space Research Association, explained that his organization coordinates the educational opportunities, public outreach and mission planning.
"The world we live in is molded by science and technology, and NASA has the ability to inspire young people in these areas," he said.