I was privileged this week to visit the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy - or SOFIA - while it was at NASA Ames Research Center. SOFIA is a Boeing 747 built in 1977 that has been modified to accomodate a 2.5 meter infrared reflecting telescope. This world-class airborne observatory that will complement the Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel and James Webb space telescopes and major Earth-based telescopes.
Flying at altitudes up to 45,000‐feet, SOFIA observes from above more than 99 percent of Earth’s atmospheric water vapor, thereby opening windows to the universe not available from the ground. The Cassegrain-telescope with Nasmyth focus, with a 2.7 meter aluminum-coated primary mirror, weighs approximately 20,000 kg. (Its operating temperature is 240 Kelvin, or -33 degrees Celsius!) The near-, mid- and far- infrared cameras and comprehensive set of spectrometers allow us to see further through the dust into the sky with access to more of the wavelength.
SOFIA is a joint program by NASA and DLR Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center). Completion of systems installation, integration and flight test operations are being conducted at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., from 2007 through 2010. SOFIA’s science operations are being planned jointly by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI) under leadership of the SOFIA Science project at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field near San Jose, Calif.
What’s cool about SOFIA:
- We get unique science data from the SOFIA project. Its unique capabilities illustrate how massive stars form in different environments by distinguishing physical, chemical, and dynamical differences between high and low mass star formation regions. SOFIA data will be used to refine accretion and cooling models of circumstellar disks, and to study the kinematics, composition, and evolution of disks around low‐mass young stellar objects. It also extends our study of exoplanets and their formation. (Go here for the science vision statement and here to see some of the science cases from the project.)
- SOFIA offers unique flexibility for deployability, resupply, and repair. Its scientific instruments can be exchanged regularly for repairs, to accommodate changing science requirements, and to incorporate new technologies. These instruments do not need to be space qualified. Its “close to home” status enables SOFIA to meet dynamic needs more quickly and less expensively.
- SOFIA redefines collaboration. From the beginning, the project was designed physically and administratively to foster partnerships between educators and scientists in a research environment - across international lines.
For more information about SOFIA, follow @SOFIATelescope on Twitter or check out her mission page here. Wonder what the “space tweeps” had to say about their experience on SOFIA today? Go here to see their reflections.
What other kinds of partnerships could advance NASA’s science goals? What would you build or create with that kind of data?