First SOFIA Missions Completed

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, successfully completed three planned scientific missions in phase one of the program, remaining airborne for ten hours on November 30, 2010 followed by additional overnight flights on the evenings of December 2nd and December 7th. A converted Boeing 747SP plane designed to fly at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, the observatory contains several scientific instruments including a one-hundred inch infrared telescope. Experts designed SOFIA to explore how stars and planets form, to help us understand how black holes work, and to examine other key areas of astrophysics.
An infrared photograph of the heart of the Orion star complex taken during the November 30 SOFIA flight. (Source: NASA/SOFIA/USRA/FORCAST Team)
An infrared photograph of the heart of the Orion star complex taken during the November 30 SOFIA flight. (Source: NASA/SOFIA/USRA/FORCAST Team)

A joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, SOFIA operates out of NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California with the science missions managed out of nearby Ames Research Center. The onboard infrared telescope collects light with wavelengths between 300 and 1.6 million nanometers. Associated supplemental instrumentation tends to focus on a smaller portion of the available wavelength range. For example, the infrared camera used to take pictures with the telescope on these first three flights only supports light in the 5,000 to 40,000 nanometer range. Eight other cameras and spectrometers operate alongside the telescope in various sections of the supported spectral range of the telescope.

In addition to its observational capabilities, SOFIA is a testbed for cutting edge instrumentation before its deployment in space. While successful deployment in SOFIA will not guarantee an instrument will operate without problems in longer space-based deployments, the ability to correct minor glitches and optimize operation after a SOFIA flight may help limit equipment failures on less accessible missions. The ability to switch out instrumentation between groups of SOFIA flights will also increase the useful lifetime of the observatory, permitting scientists to replace out of date equipment on an ongoing basis for years to come.

These first three flights primarily tested SOFIA’s basic capabilities, focusing its telescope on a section of the sky within Orion and capturing infrared photographs of the region. The next set of three flights is scheduled for February, 2011 and will replace the infrared camera with the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies spectrometer.

TFOT previously reported on other new observatories and telescopes including the first results from the Allen Telescope Array, the Herschel Space Observatory submillimeter telescope and its first images, a video explaining the design and operational capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope, the progress of the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, and the completion of the Antares Telescope, an underwater neutrino telescope also designed to monitor the ocean where it resides.

Read more about the first SOFIA flight in this NASA press release or learn more about the project generally on its NASA mission page. You can also focus on the scientific aims of SOFIA at the SOFIA Science Center website and view images taken during SOFIA mission in its NASA image gallery.

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