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SOFIA Begins In-flight Checkout of Telescope Operation


Initial flight testing of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, continued during December at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California. On Dec. 19, the highly modified Boeing 747SP carrying a German-built 2.5-meter infrared telescope took to the skies for a functional checkout of in-flight actuation and functional checkout of the telescope assembly.

SOFIA is shadowed by a NASA F/A-18.
Image above: NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, is shadowed by a NASA F/A-18 mission support aircraft during a recent test flight. NASA photo / Carla Thomas

According to SOFIA program manager Robert Meyer, engineers and scientists from the German Aerospace Center DLR and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut simulated operation of the telescope as if it were tracking stars or other celestial objects, but with the aircraft's telescope cavity door closed. Meyer said most of telescope assembly test points were completed during the 5.5-hour flight, and project engineers are evaluating whether another telescope actuation check flight with the telescope cavity door closed will be needed.

If another flight is required, it would occur in early January after a break for the holiday season. The SOFIA will then be flown to NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., for an open-house exhibit of the aircraft and telescope for Ames personnel. The SOFIA will then be flown to Dryden's newly established Aircraft Operations Facility in nearby Palmdale, Calif., where it will be based during additional development, flight testing and its operational lifetime. Once at Palmdale, the SOFIA will undergo major telescope subsystem installation and integration in preparation for the next phase of flight tests with the telescope's external cavity door open, scheduled to begin in late 2008.

Five earlier flights in the first flight test phase confirmed the structural integrity and performance of the modified Boeing 747SP while carrying the SOFIA's 17-metric-ton infrared telescope. The tests expanded the flight envelope in the areas of flutter, structural loads, handling qualities and system validation with the telescope's external cavity door closed.

The current and future flight tests are intended to verify that the unique airborne observatory is ready to perform its future astronomical science mission.

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Alan Brown
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

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Last Updated: December 26, 2007
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