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SOFIA’s Infrared Telescope Makes First In-Flight Night Observations

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a program jointly conducted by the German Aerospace Center and NASA, achieved its milestone of first in-flight night observations. Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that this flight has made SOFIA commence a 20-year journey that will allow future astronomical observations.

The SOFIA Boeing jetliner began its flight from the home base located at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center’s Aircraft Operations Facility at Palmdale, CA. The jetliner’s in-flight personnel comprised a crew from NASA, Columbia’s USRA, German SOFIA Institute (DSI) and Cornell University. The crew, which consisted of 10 astronomers, scientists, technicians and engineers, collected telescope performance data using  consoles in the main cabin of the aircraft. The German-built reflecting telescope’s precise pointing and stability met the expectations of astronomers and engineers.

Pam Marcum, a project scientist of SOFIA, Ames Research Center of NASA in Moffett Field, CA, stated that supercomputer calculations and wind tunnel tests performed at the SOFIA program indicate that sharper images can be produced for front-line astronomical research. Senior science advisor of USRA SOFIA, Eric Becklin, said that the real accomplishment was achieved when SOFIA’s scientists captured Jupiter’s images. Jupiter’s image showed heat coming out of the planet’s interior via holes present in its clouds.

The Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) is highly sensitive and was handled in flight by its creators, Terry Herter’s team of Cornell. The operational altitude of SOFIA enables it to obtain about 80% of the IR light received by space observatories.

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