07:08 AM

SOFIA Observatory Completes First Science Flight

The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is extremely proud to be a partner in the successful flight of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) on December 1st.

SOFIA, created in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR), is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet. The airborne observatory will allow researchers to better understand a wide range of astronomical phenomena including how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow. This premiere science flight took off from an Air Force runway in Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 30, flying for approximately 10 hours.

SOFIA is fitted with a 100-inch diameter airborne infrared telescope and is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. The aircraft's instruments can analyze light from a wide range of celestial objects, including warm interstellar gas and dust of bright star forming regions, by observing wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 microns. A micron equals one millionth of a meter; for comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.

The first three science flights, phase one of SOFIA's early science program, will employ the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument developed by Cornell University. FORCAST observes the mid-infrared spectrum from five to 40 microns. Researchers used the FORCAST camera on SOFIA during a test flight two weeks ago to produce infrared images of areas within the Orion star-formation complex, a region of the sky for which more extensive data were collected during the Nov. 30 flight. Dr. Eric Becklin, USRA's SOFIA Chief Science Advisor, was on the flight and said, 'This is a great day for SOFIA and the contribution that USRA has made right from the beginning of this program to produce fantastic science with SOFIA, and we demonstrated that with the first science flight this week. It is only going to get better from here. This image is the highest angular resolution at these infrared wavelengths of a region where massive stars are forming. These observations with be critical to unravel how this process is taking place.'

In February 2011, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), developed under the lead of the Max-Planck-Institut fur Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany, will be installed in the observatory for three flights during the second phase of the program.

'The early science flight program serves to validate SOFIA's capabilities and demonstrate the observatory's ability to make observations not possible from Earth-based telescopes,' said Bob Meyer, NASA's SOFIA program manager. 'It also marks SOFIA's transition from flying testbed to flying observatory, and it gives the international astronomical research community a new, highly versatile platform for studying the universe.'

For more information about SOFIA and its science mission, visit: http://www.sofia.usra.edu .

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.

Founded in 1969, USRA is an independent research corporation with competencies that span space, Earth and life sciences related disciplines, and are closely aligned with the nation's science and national security agencies. As a member based non-profit corporation with 105 major research universities as members in lieu of for-profit shareholders, our members provide our corporate governance, and along with USRA's 300 scientific and technical staff provide a unique platform for conducting ground-breaking research.