sofia nasa
August 31, 2012

NASA’s SOFIA Airborne Telescope Taking Flight This Fall

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Astronomers will soon be getting the chance to peer through a telescope that will be flying high above the city lights.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will begin its first full cycle of science flights starting in November 2012, and extending through December 2013.

SOFIA is a modified 747SP aircraft that carries a telescope with a diameter of 100 inches to altitudes above 39,000 feet, which is beyond the layer of water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere.

“More than 1,000 hours of observing time were requested, five times the amount available, evidence of SOFIA´s desirability to astronomers," SOFIA´s Science Mission Operations Director Erick Young said in a statement. "The approved projects make good use of the observatory´s capabilities to study objects ranging from Earth´s solar system neighbors to galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away.”

SOFIA first took off on an airborne flight in December 2010, and during 2011 it took flight 30 times in its "Early Science" program.

“Last year, SOFIA demonstrated that it is well on its way to being a first-class asset to the world scientific community," Pete Zell, NASA SOFIA Science Project manager, said in a statement. "Since then, the observatory staff has been working hard to complete integrated systems testing, fine-tuning of observatory performance, and planning for international operations,”

The new observation period includes 46 science flight groups in four multi-week observing campaigns, spread through a 13-month span.

The "Cycle 1" science flights include about 330 research flight hours, about 200 hours of which guest investigators have gained through proposals evaluated by U.S. and German-chartered peer review panels.

SOFIA will also undertake commissioning the observations needed to make the first four of the observatory's seven first-generation scientific instruments ready for use by guest investigators.

The four instruments to be employed during Cycle 1 are the FORCAST mid-infrared camera and spectrometer, the GREAT far-infrared spectrometer, the HIPO high-speed photometer, and the FLITECAM near-infrared camera and spectrometer.

There were 26 U.S. educators in Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program chosen to participate in SOFIA Cycle 1 flights.  These educators were selected based on the quality of their plans to bring SOFIA training and flight experiences back to their classrooms and communities.

“This SOFIA Cycle 1 announcement marks an important step in our progress," Zell said in the press release. "Infrared studies from these observations will enhance our knowledge of the life cycles of stars, how planets form, the chemistry of the interstellar medium, and much more."

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility.