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On her first true flight as an observatory, NASA’s plane-based infrared telescope (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, aka SOFIA) took a close look at Orion and other star clusters overnight on November 30th.
“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.” [press release]
SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner that now includes a 100-inch German telescope (bigger than the Hubble’s!). These early observations were made with a general-use mid-infrared camera called FORCAST designed by a group at Cornell University.
Since SOFIA cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level, it’s above 99 percent of the atmosphere’s water vapor (which normally blocks infrared light from reaching earth). The camera captures images using these infrared rays, producing detailed pictures that couldn’t be taken from earth.
The plane took its first successful flight back in April, and took some test pictures in May, but this is the first time SOFIA went up to do real work. The telescope is installed in the rear of the plane. SOFIA’s first “science” flight lasted 10 hours; researchers captured mid-infrared data of the Orion nebula and a young star cluster 3,000 light years from earth before returning to the Mojave desert.
“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.” [press release]
The first picture in the galaxy above was taken during an earlier test flight; it shows the mid-infrared light shining from the Orion nebula. The bright orange area in the upper right is an active star-forming cluster, while the rest of the areas are less active.
Two more science flights are scheduled to take place before Christmas this year to complete the first phase of the project. In the second phase, beginning in February of 2011, a German camera called GREAT will be added to observe the universe in sub-millimeter and far-infrared. SOFIA is expected to continue studying the skies for up to 20 years.
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