NASA-German SOFIA Observatory Completes First Science Flight
The airborne observatory is an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet. It will allow researchers to better understand a wide range of astronomical phenomena including how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow. This premiere science flight took off from an Air Force runway in Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 30, flying for approximately 10 hours.
"These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIAâ??s development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science observations," said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse. "We anticipate a number of important discoveries from this unique observatory, as well as extended investigations of discoveries by other space telescopes."
SOFIA is fitted with a 100-inch diameter airborne infrared telescope. It is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. The aircraft's instruments can analyze light from a wide range of celestial objects, including warm interstellar gas and dust of bright star forming regions, by observing wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 microns. A micron equals one millionth of a meter. For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.
The first three science flights, phase one of SOFIA's early science program, will employ the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument developed by Cornell University and led by principal investigator Terry Herter. FORCAST observes the mid-infrared spectrum from five to 40 microns.
Researchers used the FORCAST camera on SOFIA during a test flight two weeks ago to produce infrared images of areas within the Orion star-formation complex, a region of the sky for which more extensive data were collected during the Nov. 30 flight. A gallery of those images is available at: