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SOFIA observatory completes first science flight

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December 3, 2010

NASA's SOFIA airborne observatory has just completed the first of three science flights (A...

NASA's SOFIA airborne observatory has just completed the first of three science flights (All images courtesy of NASA)

Image Gallery (7 images)

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."

Composite infrared image of the central portion of galaxy M82, from SOFIA's First Light fl...

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.

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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9 Comments

Apparently there is a global financial crisis happening. People losing their jobs, their houses, ending up on social welfare. Family break downs due to the associated stresses.

Lucky for those NASA scientists on the billion dollar, tax payer funded, green pastures like this.

Cost benefit analysis anyone? Where are the alien life forms? The answers to life the universe and everything? How much are these answers worth? What difference will it make?

Government cash for struggling but viable industries anyone?

Forgive my cynicism people. I'm all for science but this is not humanity at its finest.

Just pleased it's not my government wasting billions in this way.

Australian
3rd December, 2010 @ 02:45 pm PST

Australian, your ignorance is showing NASA has improved the life of humans more on this planet more than you feeble mind can understand, Regards, Bill

Bill Bennett
3rd December, 2010 @ 08:22 pm PST

Couldn't agree more, Australian; although, I would be willing to bet your government does a fine job of wasting billions.

CleverName
4th December, 2010 @ 04:34 am PST

Its excatly these kind of investments that keep the human race from falling into collective depression. I am glad there is something to look out for besides the grumpy crisis-hit multitiude who need to live without a Mercedes because their overloaned society collapsed on them.

Hint: try to do something that will help this planet survive and try to make it your work. You´ll find enjoyment and satisfaction. And you´ll be able to enjoy looking at M82 in IR without the financial mist that occludes the vision of so many.

bas
4th December, 2010 @ 07:02 am PST

@ Bill Bennett:

Thankyou for setting me straight. NASA has clearly advanced many fields of science no doubt, yet your argument is mute in light of current global circumstances. Circumstances which were largely caused by the sub-prime property market in the USA.

So feebly speaking, of course, I fail to see how anyone can justify the billions of tax-payer dollars NASA consumes while people en masse are facing bankruptsy and or unemployment.

@ CleverName:

Amen brother!

I reinterate, I love science and these gizmag stories about new tech. Some of the most exciting articles on this site are regarding how science has a direct impact on the quality of people's lives and how science is reducing disease and poverty.

Australian
5th December, 2010 @ 01:35 am PST

@Australian:

Wow - talk about short-sighted!

It's research at these fundamental levels that gives us the understanding we need to engineer life-improving solutions like the micro-wave and the silicon semi-conductor.

It's exactly at a time like this, when the world is in economic and emotional strife, that we need to be looking outwards and upwards, rather than inwards.

You are forgetting all of the factory employees that build aircraft components, computers, research and laboratory equipment, etc. that still have jobs because of big spend contracts like this one.

Certainly it doesn't "directly" affect the struggling individual, but just giving people handouts does nothing for stimulating an economy for future growth.

Obviously, I think this is a great project.

interested kiwi
5th December, 2010 @ 11:12 pm PST

@ interested kiwi

Who's asking for handouts?

What I'm suggesting is a cost benefit analysis (CBA). If you are going to be spending billions of tax-payer dollars, why not put them to their best use for the taxpayer?

What I am saying is any balanced CBA will tell some terrible truths about this big cash burn. There are so many industries that would create a lot more jobs given the same funding boost.

I'm not saying ditch NASA, I'm saying cut it back. That said - it's irrelevant what I say!

However, if I was a US citizen I'd be incensed by the government's funding priorities.

Imagine, for example, the benefit if most of this money was attributed to basic free, universal healthcare for every US citizen? How many jobs would be created? How many ancillary industries would grow? How many people would benefit directly?

Shortsighted?

Perhaps you are the myopic one, my good kiwi.

Australian
7th December, 2010 @ 11:07 pm PST

@ Australian

Hey, I certainly don't claim to have all the answers.

I just think it's great that every now and then they manage to spend some money on stuff other than more efficient ways of killing people. That's where I think they should be performing their "cost/benefit analysis".

Free healthcare? Wow! They'd have to re-write their entire constitution! I hear what you're saying, but I also think it's an awfully complicated subject - mostly because of their legal system really and I wouldn't know where to begin.

interested kiwi
9th December, 2010 @ 11:24 pm PST

Pure science projects like this one are impossible to calculate with a Cost Benefit Analysis. It may have no direct benefit other than fulfill the desire of humanity to learn "why". Then again, there may be direct currently unknown benefits. Benefit to humanity - priceless... Not to mention thousands of jobs created.

I fully agree that the U.S. healthcare system needs to be fixed, however, this is small change compared to the trillions that will cost.

Edgar Walkowsky
26th October, 2011 @ 07:02 pm PDT
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