Sarah takes a trip on SOFIA, the flying infrared observatory

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Friday, June 14, 2013
If you’re going to decline an invitation, it’s best to have a good excuse. A few days ago, I was able to say, “You know what, I’d love to go see live music on Tuesday, but I’ll be on a plane in the stratosphere” — a response that I probably will never be able to top.

Next week, I’ll be traveling to California to take flight on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.

SOFIA in action. // NASA
SOFIA is a modified 747 jet that flies at altitudes of around 45,000 feet (137,000 meters), a height that rises above 99 percent of the atmosphere’s water vapor. The plane’s modifications allow it to house a 2.7-meter infrared telescope and all its electronic accoutrements. The SOFIA telescope catches infrared waves from astronomical sources, which the atmosphere’s water mostly blocks (a situation that is good for life and ski resorts but bad for infrared astronomers).

So there’s an infrared telescope and a jet that takes it high enough for it to do its job, but not so high that it can’t come home at night. That telescope, however, has to have a way to point at more than the plane’s interior wall. Engineers figured out how to direct the telescope’s focal plane out of the fuselage.

If you, too, are an engineer, you probably figured out that the way to point a scope out of a plane is to cut a big hole in the plane’s side and stick the telescope out. Obviously.

In this configuration — which also involves a separate, pressurized cabin for people who need to breathe air — SOFIA flies for 7–12 hours several nights a week, and astronomers are able to do infrared astronomy without sending an ultra-expensive telescope into orbit. SOFIA is in its early working stages, and operations and science will ramp up this year. The project will investigate things like star formation, planet formation, organic molecule distribution, the galactic center, and comets.

The SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors are 13 pairs of astronomy educators who will fly on the strato-plane in the coming months and bring their experiences back to classrooms, science centers, museums, and inspire-able audiences in general. The ambassadors will work with the scientists who are observing during their flights, and they will be part of the analysis that comes afterward.

My partner is Anne Smith, a science teacher at Green Bank Middle School in West Virginia, a school that is less than a mile from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where I used to work as an education officer.

I’m not sure how lucid I will be while in California, as each SOFIA flight begins in the late afternoon and goes all night, but keep an eye out for image-laden blog posts later! 

Here’s a parting thought: Maybe Michael Herrera, who tried last month to open an emergency exit door on an American Airlines flight, was just trying to do some science.
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