NASA will soon have a new eye in the sky!
After several years of complex modifications, the space agency's newest airborne observatory took flight for the first time recently, as the super-kustom Boeing 747SP begins its testing and evaluation phase. Dubbed SOFIA -- shorthand for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- the former Pan American and United Airlines jet has been equipped with a 20 ton telescope that will peer into the heavens through a 16-foot hatch cut into the rear fuselage. A rotating door covers the unpressurized telescope bay during takeoff and landing, and a liquid-nitrogen cooling system will pre-chill the telescope to match the conditions at high-altitude. Once the aircraft reaches 41,000 feet, the big door will open, allowing astronomers to gaze at the stars from a vantage point above 99 percent of the Earth's atmospheric water vapor.
From this lofty perch, SOFIA will enable researchers to probe a range of celestial mysteries, including the nature of galactic black holes, the evolution of galaxies, the composition of interstellar gas clouds, and the identification of complex molecules in comets.
On a feel-good note, NASA also decided to re-christen its 747SP the Clipper Lindbergh -- the same name the plane carried when it flew as N536PA for
Pan Am. After further tests at Edwards Air Force Base, SOFIA is slated to enter service in 2009 or 2010. Thereafter it will become a fixture in Silicon Valley, as SOFIA will be based at NASA's Ames Research Center at the Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California. Once operational, NASA envisions SOFIA flying several nights a week for the next 20 years.
Dissecting a Boeing 747
NASA SOFIA home page
NASA Dreyden Flight Resarch Center, SOFIA Image Gallery
NASA video of SOFIA's maiden flight
(SOFIA photos above by NASA)