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Dr. Sky

Updated Mar 21, 2017 - 11:18 am

Dr. Sky flies on SOFIA, a telescope-equipped plane used to study space

(Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy Photo)

The combination of using aircraft and telescopes to peer deeper into the universe came about in the early 20th century.

Flying above most of the atmosphere to capture images of faint celestial objects is one of the great technological achievements of science and so it is with the NASA/Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Science Center’s specially modified Boeing 747SP aircraft.

This amazing aircraft contains a specially designed 100-inch telescope that peers in to the infrared portion of the spectrum, while viewing select objects of interest.

SOFIA is used to track the birth and death of stars, formations of new solar systems, identify complex molecules in space and observe nebulae, black holes and other celestial bodies.

SOFIA has quite a storied a history. It is a former Pan Am and United Airlines aircraft that moved lots of passengers in its day. During its Pan Am career, it was christened Clipper Lindbergh in honor of aviation great, Charles Lindbergh.

After parts of Pan Am merged with United Airlines, it flew additional years in United colors, until its retirement from airline duties in 1995.

With a team of scientists and aviation professionals, SOFIA makes regular flights in the sky to help solve some of the many mysteries of our known universe. Our media team got to fly aboard SOFIA during a scheduled mission.

The trip from Phoenix to Palmdale, California, was an easy six-hour drive. With the help of Nicholas Veronico, the SOFIA public affairs officer, we were greeted at the Palmdale facility to prepare for our flight, which carried a number of teachers from the SOFIA Ambassador program.

Day one consisted of going to a few special classes on the safety aspects of the flight and the aircraft. What amazed me most was the size of the hangar that these aircraft were in. I was told that the hanger that we visited was once the production facility of some of America’s great bomber aircraft. The place is huge!

After a day of meeting many of the scientists and flight crew, we were set free to get a good nights sleep. The next day we would be ready to embark on a nearly 10 hour mission. We were told about, and given information on our flight path and the objects that we were to observe on our special journey in the sky.

Flight day has arrived!

With great anticipation and excitement, we gathered our cameras and equipment, shopped for a few food items and headed off to the base for our new journey on SOFIA. Our plan was to have our photorecon team document the mission with still photography and have some of the Dr. Sky team videotape a short documentary of the mission. The best of both worlds!

A final formal briefing was held so we got to meet all the players from pilots to scientists for this mission. After a final check of all the safety items and equipment, we rolled our team and gear out to the flight line.

We boarded the modified jumbo jet with our team and gear while lots of activity brewed inside this flying metal laboratory. At around 4:30 p.m. local time, we took our seats and strapped in.

Before we departed, we found our way around the maze of taxiways and runways at the Palmdale airport. Imagine how many famous aircraft have taken off from these runways! B-1 bombers, B-2 bombers and the legendary XB-70 Valkyrie, to name just a few.

SOFIA lurched off the runway and thundered skyward with its large telescope and curious crew of scientists eager and thirsty for more data on the wonders of the universe. Our flight took us over a good portion of the U.S. — California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Texas, Nebraska and Kansas — during different legs of our journey.

During each leg of the mission, scientists were securing live data from the air as they zoomed in on objects in hopes of studying star formation. The door of the 100-inch telescope was opened in flight, but there was no trace of feeling the door being open it was so smooth.

We were cruising at between 41,000 ft and 43,000 feet above the ground during much of the mission, high above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, right where SOFIA is at home.

During the flight, we got to see the Northern Lights from some 43,000 feet over Montana.

Equally important is the great work that is being done on SOFIA to advance science and everyone should know that your tax dollars are being well spent!

All this will be put into picture and video formats to share with you and yours, but a special thank you to Nicholas Veronico, SOFIA public affairs officer, for making all this happen.

Always keep your eyes on the skies! Get you very own Dr. Sky March star chart.

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