NASA’s SOFIA Aircraft Makes First Science Run

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NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — an infrared telescope-equipped 747 jetliner better known as SOFIA — completed its first science flight Nov. 30.

SOFIA took off from a U.S. Air Force runway in Palmdale, Calif., for a 10-hour flight that demonstrated the aircraft’s potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe, NASA said in a Dec. 1 press release. The flight was the first of three planned science sorties to employ a faint-object infrared camera developed by New York’s Cornell University. NASA plans to conduct two more flights with the camera attached to SOFIA’s German-built 2.5-meter telescope before installing the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies in February for a three-flight series.

“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,” Bob Meyer, NASA’s SOFIA program manager, said in the press release. “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.”

SOFIA has been in development since 1995, costing NASA more than $600 million to date. The program’s total projected price tag for development plus 20 years of operations is approaching $3 billion, according to NASA estimates released in the spring.