DR. SKY BLOG

Details about the amazing airborne telescope SOFIA

Oct 20, 2021, 2:00 PM | Updated: 3:01 pm
SOFIA soars over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains with its telescope door open during a tes...
SOFIA soars over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains with its telescope door open during a test flight. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. (NASA Photo/Jim Ross)
(NASA Photo/Jim Ross)

For the longest time, mankind has reached for the stars by building larger and larger telescopes to peer out into the vast unknown.

The major problem for all telescope designs is being able to cut through the Earth’s thick atmosphere and still acquire quality images of faint celestial objects.

In the early part of the 20th century, astronomers in California built some of the largest telescopes known. Two examples of this are the 100-inch Hooker telescope that sits atop Mount Wilson in Los Angeles County, the largest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1949.

Then another great telescope, the impressive 200-inch Mount Palomar telescope came online.

Edwin Hubble used the 100-inch telescope to prove that our universe was expanding.

Many discoveries were made with these giant instruments, about what the universe is made of and where we are in the Milky Way galaxy.

Welcome to airborne astronomy!

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/SOFIA Science Center’s specially modified 747SP aircraft.

The name SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy.

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

With a team of scientists and aviation professionals, SOFIA makes regular flights to help solve some of the many mysteries of our known universe.

Our media team got to fly aboard SOFIA on a scheduled mission.

Driving 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 facility to prepare for our flight, along with a number of teachers in 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.

SOFIA is huge too, a specially modified Boeing 747 SP aircraft that is one of the 45 or so special performance models of the 747.

This aircraft has a history of its own, being a former Pan Am and United airlines aircraft that moved lots of passengers in its day.

During its Pan Am days, it was christened Clipper Lindbergh in honor of aviation great Charles Lindbergh.

After a day of meeting many of the scientists and flight crew, we were set free to get a good night’s sleep ahead of the nearly 10-hour mission the next day.

We were given information on the 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 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.

Another special treat that we looked forward to was for me to do my live radio report for Coast To Coast AM from the SOFIA aircraft somewhere over America.

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

We boarded SOFIA with our team and gear and lots of activity was brewing inside this flying metal laboratory.

At around 4:30 p.m. local time, we took our seats and strapped in, as we found our way around the maze of 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.

With great precision, SOFIA went down 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 and Kansas, just to name a few.

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.

During the flight, the doors of the 100-inch telescope were opened but there was no trace of feeling the doors open – it was that smooth of a flight.

We were cruising between 41,000-43,000 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.

SOFIA is tasked to explore the following:

• Star birth and death

• Formation of new solar systems

• Identification of complex molecules in space

• Observing planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system

• Nebulae and dust in galaxies

• Black holes at the center of galaxies

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

The highlight of the mission for me was being able to do my radio show live from 43,000 feet above Nebraska, with millions of listeners hearing me do this from a moving aircraft promoting the crew and staff of SOFIA.

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

All this will be put into a picture and video format, but a special thank you to SOFIA public affairs for making all this happen.

Here is what SOFIA looks like.

Here is my special Dr. Sky You Tube video of our amazing mission.

Here are more details on SOFIA.

To print your own monthly star chart, click here.

To view satellites/dates/times of passage, click here.

Listen to the Dr. Sky Show on KTAR News 92.3 FM every Saturday at 3 a.m.

Podcasts are available here.

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Details about the amazing airborne telescope SOFIA