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NASA's Airborne Observatory Reaches New Heights Teaching Science
Marita Beard Click image for full resolution.
Teacher Marita Beard discusses science education on board SOFIA.
Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center / Dominic Hart

SOFIA aircraft Click image for full resolution.
Visitor wait to tour SOFIA at NASA's Ames Research Center.
Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center / Dominic Hart

Dana Backman, SOFIA outreach Click image for full resolution.
Dana Backman, SOFIA's education and public outreach manager, performs infrared demonstrations at the public event.
Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center / Dominic Hart

NASA recently invited high school students and the general public to NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., to tour NASA's next generation airborne observatory, called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), and talk with its science team.

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that carries a telescope with a 100-inch (2.5 meter)-diameter reflecting mirror that conducts astronomy research not possible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes. It uses an infrared telescope to detect the invisible energy of many astronomical objects that cannot be seen with the human eye, or ordinary telescopes.

SOFIA began science flights in December 2010. In May 2011, NASA announced the selection of six teachers from across the U.S. to share flight experiences with astronomers. Marita Beard, a science teacher from Branham High School, San Jose, Calif., participated in a flight during the night of June 3-4 that lasted 10 hours and flew at altitudes up to 43,000 feet above Earth. As part of the astronomy experience, Beard's high school students recently were given an opportunity to tour the airborne facility that they had heard so much about from their teacher.

"It was a wonderful experience for me as a teacher. I now have real, personal experience to help teach science. I can better explain the science and have seen how science experiments are done," said Beard.

In addition to making a contribution to science, NASA is helping young scientists and teachers learn infrared astronomy. Teachers, like Beard, are being given a unique opportunity to partner with SOFIA's science team as part of the frontier astronomy research by applying for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Cycle 1 team. Cycle 1 science flights are expected to take place between mid-2012 and mid-2013.

"I had pre-conceived ideas about the experience. I thought I'd be looking over the scientists' shoulders. But they actually took time to explain things to me," Beard said.

SOFIA will be used to study many different kinds of astronomical objects and phenomena, but some of the most interesting are: the birth and death of stars, the formation of new solar systems, identification of complex molecules in space, evolution of gas and dust in the interstellar medium (or, ecosystems of galaxies), composition of planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system, and supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies.

"The most exciting thing I saw was the center of the galaxy," said Beard. "Dr. Terry Herter, Cornell University's principal investigator for the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST), showed me the highest resolution and clearest picture of the center of the Milky Way ever seen."

As a science teacher, Beard was given hands-on experience and shown how the astronomy research process works. "I learned what 'chopping' is. It's how scientists get rid of background radiation in an image, so they look at only the infrared light coming from the galaxy," explained Beard.

The learning experience wasn't just about science though; career development also was part of it. There were videographers, pilots, safety and avionics officers, flight engineers and planners, and others on board; each playing a role in the science experiment process.

"I was surprised by the number of people on board. You don't have to be a scientist to be a member of the NASA SOFIA team. I need to tell my students that. I also talked to these people and learned the many, diverse paths they took to get their jobs," she said.

Once the students arrived at Ames, they visited SOFIA exhibits, saw demonstrations and heard talks by SOFIA experts.

"This is an infrared camera, and you are seeing yourselves on this screen. The darker colors are the cooler temperatures, and the lighter colors are the warmer temperatures. Your hair is darker than your skin because it's cooler," said Dana Backman, SOFIA's education and public outreach manager, who demonstrated to students the temperature variations of infrared images.

He explained that different cameras are used to see different things in space. An infrared camera is used to take pictures of newly forming stars, while the Hubble Space Telescope is more appropriate to observe mature stars. "A fully-fledged star is as hot as the sun, and so is detectable at wavelengths to which the human eye and Hubble are sensitive," said Backman. "An infrared camera has terrestrial uses also. For instance, it can be used for "search and rescue" campaigns, since a person's warmth could be detected at night in the wilderness," he added.

The Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program is an outstanding opportunity for NASA to reach out to both new and veteran teachers of science, technology, engineering and math to bring the excitement of real science research into the classroom and the community at large.

"We know that teachers who participate in science research programs return inspired, and their students' engagement with technical subjects are measurably increased for many years afterward," said Backman, who oversees the process to select and train educators for flights on SOFIA.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.

Formal and informal educators can apply for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Cycle 1 (2012-2103) team until Nov. 15, 2011. For more information about applying for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Cycle 1 (2012-2103) team, visit:


For more information about NASA SOFIA program, visit:


For more information about NASA SOFIA education program, visit:


Ruth Dasso Marlaire
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.