Sarah preps for flights on SOFIA

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Today, I arrived in Palmdale, California, for a week of staying up all night, sleeping all day (or trying to), and flying on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — actions that are mostly foreign to me at this point in my life.

Two other Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors and I toured the hangar at Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, out of which NASA flies five Earth- and space-science research planes, including SOFIA.

Tomorrow night, SOFIA will take some thirty technicians, scientists, pilots, engineers, educators, and flight attendants into the stratosphere to collect infrared light from space. Just kidding — there are no flight attendants. // Sarah Scoles
We also received safety training, where I learned that there are at least three ways to breathe oxygen should the cabin become depressurized. SOFIA has a commercial-airline-style trifold guidebook detailing the ins and outs of seat belts and exit doors. This pamphlet goes in the back pocket of each seat, as if to convince passengers that something about this plane is normal. In reality, SOFIA formerly was a regular, old Pan Am 747, but it was modified to house and point an infrared telescope mid-flight, which involved — among other things — cutting a hole in its fuselage and installing 4,000 extra sensors so that the plane can report how it's feeling.

SOFIA really has just begun its scientific operation, though it reached its 100th-flight milestone in April. Extensive test flights were necessary to make sure the hole in the plane wouldn't turn it into a giant, high-altitude organ pipe, a vibration that would have exhausted the "fatigue life" of the plane in just 20 minutes. Engineers also needed to make sure that the telescope could point even though the plane was flying hundreds of miles per hour, the instruments could collect data, and the data could be recorded and turned into brilliant discoveries about star formation and planetary atmospheres.

Tuesday night (all night), I'll be on one of these commissioning flights. Then, Thursday night (all night), I'll be on a flight on which astronomers are doing science. If you want to live-track these flights as they zig-zag around, go to On the left side of the main page, click on the "Private flight" section, and enter SOFIA'S tail number, nasa747, into the tail# box.

Watch for updates here over the next few days!

Anne Smith, a science teacher at Green Bank Middle School in West Virginia, and I make up an Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors team. Here, we're standing in front of the instrument that will be attached to the telescope during our flights. // Pamela Harman

The cockpit somehow made its way into our safety training. // Sarah Scoles

This little plane, formerly a private jet, watches for tectonic movement. // Sarah Scoles
They took these perfectly good seats out of their science planes. // Anne Smith

A comforting sight in the hangar. // Sarah Scoles

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