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NASA’s Newest Airborne Observatory Completes First Science Mission

On December 1, after five months of test flights, SOFIA—NASA’s newest and largest airborne astronomical observatory—completed a 10-hour flight that marked the project’s first mission devoted solely to gathering scientific data.

A 17-ton telescope mounted in the fuselage of a modified 747 jumbo jet, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) will now embark on a 20-year investigation of the infrared spectrum of the universe, an area never before explored by either satellite- or ground-based observatories.

Luke Keller, an associate professor of physics at Ithaca College, was onboard for the historic mission and is available to talk about the new insights SOFIA will provide on how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow. He can be reached at or (607) 342-0764.

“This flight and the observations we have completed are very exciting because they demonstrate that we have a working observatory, not just a flying telescope,” Keller said. “The images we captured are beautiful and rich in details that we already know are unique and will advance our understanding of the process of star formation. We’re working hard on data analysis and we look forward to sharing those images and our scientific findings over the next few weeks and months.”

The December 1 mission was the first of three flights that will constitute phase one of SOFIA’s early science program. Phase one will employ FORCAST (Faint Object InfraRed Camera), the infrared camera system installed on the telescope. Built at Cornell University’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research under the direction of Cornell professor Terry Herter, FORCAST is the first of eight instruments that will be installed on the telescope to capture infrared images of celestial phenomenon and measure physical characteristics such as their chemical compositions, temperatures and motion. A co-investigator on Herter’s Cornell team of scientists and engineers, Keller was a key contributor in designing FORCAST’s optics and leading the team that analyzes the data it produces.

“These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIA’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 an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). The premiere science flight took off from an Air Force runway in Palmdale, California.

Keith Davis | Newswise Science News
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