The SOFIA telescope plane observes space at 12 km altitude
– News of September 1, 2019 –
When astronomical observations are made, we have to deal with the Earth’s atmosphere, which disturbs the light and absorbs part of the electromagnetic spectrum, especially in the infrared. We can choose to overcome this by placing an observatory in space or we can try to minimize its effects using adaptive optics systems.
NASA and DLR, the German space center, have opted for an intermediate solution by developing SOFIA, a telescope with a primary mirror a little larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. This telescope is placed in a Boeing 747 and operates while the plane is flying 12 km above sea level. At this height, the telescope evolves beyond the largest masses of water vapor present in the atmosphere, which allows it to cover a large part of the infrared spectrum.
Making astronomical observations while flying in the midst of atmospheric turbulence is a challenge. The SOFIA telescope is equipped with gyroscopes, dampers and bearings that allow to point the target continuously. In this configuration, the SOFIA telescope plane has already been able to make a number of remarkable observations such as star formations, the immediate consequences of a supernova or traces of helium hydride, the first molecule that formed in the universe. NASA has now to make SOFIA even more productive by flying the plane more often and spending more time at very high altitudes.
The SOFIA telescope plane is not the first project of its kind. In the 1970s, NASA had already modified a Lockheed C-141A aircraft to accommodate a 90-cm mirror telescope. The telescope plane has been in service for 20 years and SOFIA can probably be expected to be so, which means it is now at a little more than half of its life.
The essentials about the SOFIA telescope plane
– News of May 17, 2017 –
Sofia is a NASA infrared telescope boarded by a Boeing 747. The jumbo jet sails at 13,000 meters altitude to avoid water vapor, and at nearly 1000 km / h. An opening hatch on its side houses the telescope 2.5 meters in diameter that must point accurately and without turbulence.
The instrument is relatively new: it came into service in 2014 and begins to give us its first interesting observations.
Image by NASA/Jim Ross