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NASA's airborne infrared observatory sees 'first light'

Date:
May 31, 2010
Source:
NASA
Summary:
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint program by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, achieved a major milestone May 26, with its first in-flight night observations.

This composite infrared image of Jupiter was made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera during the SOFIA observatory’s "first light" flight. A recent visual-wavelength picture of approximately the same side of Jupiter is shown for comparison.
Credit: Anthony Wesley

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint program by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, achieved a major milestone May 26, with its first in-flight night observations.

"With this flight, SOFIA begins a 20-year journey that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth and space-borne observatories," said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It clearly sets expectations that SOFIA will provide us with "Great Observatory"-class astronomical science."

The highly modified SOFIA Boeing 747SP jetliner fitted with a 100-inch diameter reflecting telescope took off from its home base at the Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. The in-flight personnel consisted of an international crew from NASA, the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., Cornell University and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) in Stuttgart. During the six-hour flight, at altitudes up to 35,000 feet, the crew of 10 scientists, astronomers, engineers and technicians gathered telescope performance data at consoles in the aircraft's main cabin.

"Wind tunnel tests and supercomputer calculations made at the start of the SOFIA program predicted we would have sharp enough images for front-line astronomical research," said SOFIA project scientist Pam Marcum of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "A preliminary look at the first light data indicates we indeed accomplished that."

The stability and precise pointing of the German-built telescope met or exceeded the expectations of the engineers and astronomers who put it through its paces during the flight.

"The crowning accomplishment of the night came when scientists on board SOFIA recorded images of Jupiter," said USRA SOFIA senior science advisor Eric Becklin. "The composite image from SOFIA shows heat, trapped since the formation of the planet, pouring out of Jupiter's interior through holes in its clouds."

The highly sensitive Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) used for these initial observations was operated in flight by its builders, a team led by Cornell's Terry Herter. FORCAST captures in minutes images that would require many hour-long exposures by ground-based observatories blocked from a clear infrared view by water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. SOFIA's operational altitude, which is above more than 99 percent of that water vapor, allows it to receive 80 percent or more of the infrared light accessible to space observatories.

The SOFIA program is managed at Dryden. Ames manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with USRA and DSI.

For more information about SOFIA, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/sofia

For information about SOFIA's science mission, visit: http://www.sofia.usra.edu

To see video of SOFIA in flight, visit: http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Movie/SOFIA/HTML/EM-0095-29.html


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

NASA. "NASA's airborne infrared observatory sees 'first light'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 May 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100530213407.htm>.
NASA. (2010, May 31). NASA's airborne infrared observatory sees 'first light'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 18, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100530213407.htm
NASA. "NASA's airborne infrared observatory sees 'first light'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100530213407.htm (accessed April 18, 2014).

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