08:08 AM

SOFIA Meets "First Science Light" Milestone, Makes First In-Flight Observations

The University Space Research Association (USRA) is extremely proud to announce the achievement of 'first science light' by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) with the observatory's initial in-flight observations. With this major milestone, completed on May 26, 2010, SOFIA embarks on an anticipated 20 year career that promises to provide extraordinary insight into the solar system, our galaxy and the universe, and a wealth of data to astronomers, physicists and instrument technicians.

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP housing a 17-ton 100-inch diameter infrared telescope. Placement of the telescope inside the aircraft enables observations to be done high above the obscuring water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. The fact that SOFIA takes off from and lands on the ground means that instruments can easily be switched out and upgraded (something which cannot be done easily or cheaply with space-based telescopes) and gives the observatory significant technical flexibility.

SOFIA's 'First Science Light' mission, which began with the aircraft's take off from its home base (NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA), comprised an 8 hr flight reaching an altitude of 35,000 feet. During the flight an 18 person crew of scientists, engineers, and technicians successfully tested the telescope's performance and took the first infrared images of test objects. Among the flight's achievements were the capture of images of the Messier 82 (M82) galaxy and of Jupiter at wavelengths unobservable by ground or current space based telescopes. The composite image of Jupiter shows heat pouring out of the planet's interior through holes in its clouds. In the infrared image of M82, it is possible to look through the galaxy's interstellar dust clouds to show several 'starburst' knots in which stars are forming by the tens of thousands. These scientific observations by this unique observatory are just the beginning of many advances as its full capability is realized. Dr. Eric Becklin, USRA's SOFIA Chief Science Advisor, stated 'It's tremendous for me personally to see these images; this feels like the culmination of my career.' Dr. Becklin led the team that wrote the original proposal to NASA for the development and operation of SOFIA, and performed some of the first infrared observations of planets and galaxies in the 1960s.

Dr. Erick Young, USRA's SOFIA Science Mission Operations Director, stated that SOFIA offers "an amazing amount of promise" by giving scientists the opportunity to collect critical information on astronomical objects that will be much easier to study from a high altitude vantage point. Dr. Young referred to SOFIA's enabling a 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 the beginning of SOFIA science missions brings astronomers closer to achieving what has been 'A decades-long dream.'

'USRA is extremely proud to be a part of this exciting and very important project,' said USRA President and CEO, Dr. Frederick A. Tarantino. 'SOFIA is a revolutionary approach to infrared astronomy and will provide astronomers with capabilities never before available over a very broad range of infrared wave lengths.'

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.