SOFIA Airborne Telescope Returns First Scientific Images

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SOFIA, the U.S. space agency’s telescope-equipped jumbo jet, took its first in-flight photos May 26, capturing multicolored infrared images of Jupiter and the galaxy M82.

“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,” Jon Morse, NASA’s astrophysics division director, said in a statement. “It clearly sets expectations that SOFIA will provide us with Great Observatory-class astronomical science.”

Short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA is an extensively modified Boeing 747SP jet aircraft equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared reflecting telescope. A door is opened during flight to allow the telescope to observe the night sky from above much of the atmosphere that can interfere with observations by ground-based telescopes.

NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California is overseeing the telescope’s operations. The observatory is a joint effort of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, which contributed the telescope. The telescope is controlled by researchers flying along in a separate cabin inside the SOFIA aircraft, which is expected to be in service for at least 20 years.

“At its maximum observation ceiling, SOFIA is above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, and so can receive a large part of cosmic infrared radiation which is otherwise absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere,” said Paul Hertz, chief scientist for NASA’s science mission directorate.

For the maiden science flight, the aircraft observatory took off from its home at Dryden’s Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.

A crew of 10 scientists accompanied the SOFIA telescope on the nearly eight-hour flight. SOFIA was flying at 800 kilometers per hour and at altitudes of up to 10,668 meters when it made it first observations. “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 Mountain View, Calif. “A preliminary look at the first light data indicates we indeed accomplished that.”

SOFIA’s first infrared images of Jupiter and M82 revealed both objects at wavelengths unobservable by ground- and space-based telescopes, SOFIA scientists said.

In the Jupiter snapshot, the gas giant planet’s internal heat can be seen bleeding through holes in its thick bands of clouds. The infrared look at the M82 galaxy, meanwhile, allowed astronomers to peer through the galaxy’s interstellar dust clouds and spot several so-called starburst knots, where infant stars are forming by the tens of thousands.

“SOFIA combines the effectiveness of satellite-based telescopes with the relatively easy maintenance of ground-based observatories,” said Alois Himmes, SOFIA project manager for the German Aerospace Center. “SOFIA is comparable to a space observatory that comes home every morning.”

The 10-scientist team aboard SOFIA’s inaugural science flight included researchers from NASA, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), the German SOFIA Institute (DSI), and Cornell University. USRA and DSI oversee SOFIA’s science operations for NASA and the German Aerospace Center. “A preliminary examination of the first light data shows that the images are in fact sharp enough to enable cutting-edge astronomy,” said Alfred Krabbe, director and scientific head of DSI. “Now, at last, the fun begins.”