NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne telescope arrived at Joint Base Andrews, Md., the evening of Sept. 21. Earlier that day, the aircraft departed Stuttgart, Germany, where it had been displayed to the public and guests of the German SOFIA Institute.
During SOFIA's Washington-area stopover, hundreds of children from military families had the opportunity to tour the observatory, visit NASA exhibits, and speak with SOFIA scientists. SOFIA was featured at Andrews to promote science, technology, mathematics, and engineering education in support of the White House's "Joining Forces" initiative, which gives service members and their families opportunities they have earned.
Among the target's planned for the observatory's nearly 11-hour science flight back to the United States was an opportunity to collect infrared data on the Galactic Center.
"The Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies, but it is our home and the closest example of many important phenomena in the Universe," said SOFIA Science Mission Operations Director Erick Young. "In particular, the Galactic Center is home to the nearest super-massive black hole as well as the extreme star forming region in our galaxy. Sometimes learning about what is close is the best way to learn about the most distant things."
For this mission, SOFIA used the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), developed by a team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany, to collect spectrographic information at frequencies between 1.2 and 5 terahertz (60-220 micron wavelengths). These wavelengths are not accessible to ground-based instruments as they are blocked by water vapor in the atmosphere. SOFIA operates in the stratosphere at altitudes of 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km), above more than 99 percent of this water vapor.
SOFIA will fly another science mission with the GREAT instrument on Sept. 24 when it returns to its base at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, Palmdale, Calif.
"Our return to Palmdale will mark the end of our first international deployment," said NASA SOFIA Program Manager Bob Meyer. "Demonstrating our ability to work from a remote site is a SOFIA program milestone. With this series of flights, we have successfully shown that our aircraft and science teams are ready and capable of operating the observatory away from our home base."
The science mission slated for Sept. 24 has been canceled due to technical issues with the telescope and rain forcast for the Washington, D.C., area during the next few days. The aircraft will return to Palmdale to give SOFIA staff access to their labs to make repairs. The science mission has been rescheduled for Sept. 28.
SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.