NASA has announced that its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne observatory has just completed its maiden science flight. The flight was undertaken to demonstrate the aircraft's potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe. It's anticipated that the aircraft will allow researchers to extend investigations of discoveries already made by existing space telescopes, as well as make important breakthroughs of its own.

The heavily-modified Boeing 747SP has been fitted with a 100-inch (254-cm) diameter airborne infrared telescope and is the result of a collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt. The aircraft took off from a U.S. Air Force runway in Palmdale, California on November 30 and remained in the air for about 10 hours, cruising at altitudes of between 39,000 and 45,000 feet (11,887 to 13,716 meters). The milestone event represents the first of three science flights where the researchers will employ the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument developed by Cornell University.

"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."

The team says that SOFIA will help researchers gain a better understanding of a host 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. Its instruments can observe wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 microns, and are capable of analyzing such things as warm interstellar gas and dust of bright star-forming regions.

More images from the test flights will be posted to the SOFIA image gallery over the coming weeks.

The second stage of the science program will start in February of next year, when the aircraft will have the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies installed.