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.