NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, completed the first of three science flights on Wednesday morning to demonstrate the aircraft's potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe.
The airborne observatory is an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet. It 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 an Air Force runway in Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 30, flying for approximately 10 hours.
"These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIA’s development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science observations," said NASA Astrophysics Division 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-inch diameter airborne infrared telescope. It is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. 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 microns. A micron equals one millionth of a meter. For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.
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 mid-infrared spectrum from five to 40 microns.
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 the Nov. 30 flight.
"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, Bonn, Germany, 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 U.S. 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.
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