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SOFIA Completes First Science Flight

Photonics.com
Dec 2010
MOFFETT FIELD, Calif., Dec. 17, 2010 — NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or Sofia, recently completed the first of three science flights, demonstrating the aircraft's potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe.


The high-tech German-built infrared telescope and its associated lower flexible telescope cavity door are rotated upward to their maximum 58° vertical position in this close-up photo taken during the last flight in the Sofia observatory's flight envelope-expansion test series. (Photo: Carla Thomas, NASA)

The airborne observatory is a collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). A heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 ft, Sofia will allow researchers to better understand a wide range of astronomical phenomena, including how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow. This premiere science flight took off from a US Air Force runway in Palmdale on November 30, flying for approximately 10 h.

"These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in Sofia's development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science observations," said NASA Astrophysics Div. Director Jon Morse. "We anticipate a number of important discoveries from this unique observatory, as well as extended investigations of discoveries by other space telescopes."

Sofia is fitted with a 100-in.-diameter airborne infrared telescope. The aircraft's instruments can analyze light from a wide range of celestial objects, including warm interstellar gas and dust of bright star forming regions, by observing wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 μm. For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 μm.

The first three science flights – phase one of Sofia's early science program – will employ the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the Sofia Telescope (Forcast) instrument developed by Cornell University and led by principal investigator Terry Herter. Forcast observes the midinfrared spectrum from 5 to 40 μm.


This infrared image of the heart of the Orion star-formation complex was taken from the Sofia using the Forcast midinfrared camera. Sofia is optimized for observations at infrared wavelengths that cannot be accessed by any telescope on the ground or currently in space. A two-filter composite, this image reveals detailed structures in the clouds of star-forming material, as well as heat radiating from a cluster of luminous newborn stars seen in the upper right. This young stellar cluster was originally identified in 1967 by Eric Becklin and others. Becklin, Sofia’s chief science advisor, was on the initial science flight that continued the studies of these objects. (Photo: NASA/Sofia/Universities Space Research Association/Forcast team)


Researchers used the Forcast camera on Sofia during a test flight two weeks ago to produce infrared images of areas within the Orion star-formation complex, a region of the sky for which more extensive data were collected during flight. (See: gallery) Upcoming SOFIA images, including images from the inaugural flight, will be added to this gallery.

"The early science flight program serves to validate Sofia's capabilities and demonstrate the observatory's ability to make observations not possible from Earth-based telescopes," said Bob Meyer, NASA's Sofia program manager. "It also marks Sofia's transition from flying testbed to flying observatory, and it gives the international astronomical research community a new, highly versatile platform for studying the universe."

In February 2011, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (Great), developed under the lead of the Max-Planck-Institut fur Radioastronomie in Bonn, will be installed in the observatory for three flights during the second phase of the program.

"The first science flight showed that the Sofia observatory works very well," said Alois Himmes, Sofia project manager at DLR. "It also demonstrated the excellent collaboration between the US and German partners and the intense work of the teams during the past weeks."

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the Sofia science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches Sofia Institut at the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

For more information, visit:  www.nasa.gov/sofia 




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