08:08 AM

SOFIA Media Day Introduces "First Light" Missions

Reporters attending a recent Media Day event for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) were given not only an introduction to the innovative high-flying observatory but were also briefed on the telescope's exciting, upcoming "First Light" missions. SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP housing a 17-ton infrared telescope. Placement of the telescope inside the aircraft will enable observations to be done at an altitude eliminating much of the atmospheric interference associated with ground-based observations. The fact that SOFIA will take off from and land on the ground means that instruments can easily be switched out and upgraded (something which can't easily be done with space-based telescopes) and gives the observatory a significant technical flexibility. SOFIA's revolutionary approach will provide extraordinary opportunities and a wealth of data to astronomers, physicists and technicians.

The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) currently manages the SOFIA Science Mission. Dr. Erick Young, USRA's SOFIA Science Mission Operations Director, shared both information on and his enthusiasm for the upcoming mission with Media Day attendees. Dr. Young stated that SOFIA offers 'an amazing amount of promise' because it will give scientists the opportunity to collect critical information on astronomical objects that will be much easier to study from a high altitude vantage point. As an example of this, Dr. Young pointed to the fact that SOFIA operations will allow more detailed study of star formation processes and of the chemical nature of molecules involved in those processes. 'Trying to understand the nature of this star formation process is very high on the intellectual questions list,' Dr. Young said, adding that with the approach of SOFIA science missions 'We're very close to realizing a decades-long dream.'

'USRA is extremely pleased to participate in the SOFIA program,' said USRA President and CEO, Dr. Frederick A. Tarantino. 'SOFIA will provide astronomers with new capabilities never before available over a very broad range of infrared wave lengths.'

Based at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA, SOFIA is slated to begin scientific operations later this year.

SOFIA is a joint NASA and Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR; German Aerospace Center) program. USRA and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) manage SOFIA's science and mission operations center for NASA at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Established in 1969 by the National Academy of Sciences, USRA is a private, nonprofit consortium of 105 universities offering advanced degrees in space- and aeronautics-related disciplines. USRA's mission is to conduct leading-edge research, develop innovative technologies, promote education and policy across the breadth of space science, and operate premier science and technology facilities by involving universities, private industry and government.