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The SOFIA's Starry Nights - Becklin Brings Heady Science Down To Earth
August 8, 2011

Eric Becklin and a volunteer demonstrate that while heat from faces shows up in the infrared spectrum, cold objects, like a water bottle, appear dark.Eric Becklin and a volunteer demonstrate that while heat from faces shows up in the infrared spectrum, cold objects, like a water bottle, appear dark. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida)
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People who came out to the City of Palmdale's Thursday Night on the Square event July 28 could have seen the stars as daylight faded, but they didn't have to wait that long to learn about them thanks to a NASA presentation at the AERO Institute.

Eric Becklin, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy chief science advisor, and Stefan Teufel, a SOFIA telescope engineer, brought their out-of-this-world knowledge down to Earth for attendees. Though astronomy is very complex, Becklin and Teufel used common items like a cold water bottle, balloon and spray bottle to illustrate technical concepts.

Becklin explained that the SOFIA aircraft, which carries one of the world's largest infrared telescopes, flies above the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere to capture imagery of heat and radiation from stars, planets and other objects in space. The images are reflected through three mirrors and onto an instrument that is mounted on the telescope and takes measurements.

As he spoke, he held a balloon to his face while Teufel took a picture with an infrared camera. The balloon appeared invisible because the infrared camera captured the heat from Becklin's face and produced an orange-yellow image.

"It looks like you're burning," a young audience member observed.

Then, to illustrate the effects of moisture, the balloon was sprayed with water. When Teufel took another infrared image through the moisture on the balloon, Becklin essentially disappeared.

Using that example, Becklin explained that heat generated by celestial objects, not visible to the naked eye, can be seen in the infrared. Using the wet balloon example, he explained to the audience that the SOFIA takes the telescope above the moisture for a clear view of the universe and beyond.

It might be hard for young children to envision what an eight-foot-wide telescope mirror might look like, so he had audience members hold onto then stretch out a rope in a circle. The kids smiled as they looked around the rope circle and nodded that they understood the size of the SOFIA telescope.

Every Thursday night, the NASA Education Office offers speakers and activities and opens the AERO Institute Exploration Gallery to attendees during the city event. A new International Space Station model debuted in July, and the regular line-up of displays includes a shuttle tire and tile, a shuttle flight simulator, an aircraft cockpit, a SOFIA exhibit, an interactive globe that features information about the Earth, moon and planets, a wind tunnel and more.

Peter Merlin, a NASA historian and Tybrin Corp. employee, has made several presentations at Thursday Night on the Square. In July, his presentations included "Dawn: Exploring New Worlds," an overview of the Dawn robotic spacecraft's exploration mission to the protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, and "Meteorites: Rocks From Space," an introduction to types and characteristics of meteorites, their origins and significance. Merlin also answered questions at the presentation on "Hometown Heroes - Pete Knight and Joe Walker."

The Thursday events continue through Aug. 18.

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