The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, is an infrared telescope that flies – no joke — aboard a 747 airplane that has a big hole cut out of the fuselage. It’s the follow-up mission of Kuiper, a very successful but smaller telescope that took lots of great data from the cargo class section of a modified C-141.
SOFIA is a much bigger ‘scope (2.5 meters), and so will do much better work. It almost didn’t though. During the notorious reign of NASA’s Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate Mary Cleave (who is gone now), SOFIA was moments away from being axed. But pressure from scientists and others got SOFIA a reprieve, and things got better from there.
Yesterday, it flew for the first time on a test run from Waco, Texas:
See the bulge in the back of the fuselage? That’s where SOFIA sits. A door will open to expose the telescope to the sky (it didn’t on this test run). The plane flies pretty high up for observations, above most of the water vapor in our atmosphere that blocks infrared light from space. The plane, surprisingly, is pretty stable, and gives a great platform for observing. NASA has more info.
This is very exciting. One great thing Kuiper did, and SOFIA will continue to do, is allow teachers to go up with the plane and make observations. And when they land, they go back to the classroom and tell their students how totally cool it is fly on a NASA jet with a honking big telescope. And this way, one by one if we have to, we infect teachers — and their students — with the joy of science and astronomy.