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SOFIA Telescope Operation Checkout Continues
NASA's SOFIA infrared observatory and F/A-18 safety chase. 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

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.

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.

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