NASA-German SOFIA Observatory Completes First Science Flight

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. -- NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, completed the first of three science flights on Wednesday morning to demonstrate the aircraft's potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe.

The airborne observatory is an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet.

It 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.

"These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIA's
development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science
observations," said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse.
"We anticipate a number of important discoveries from this unique
observatory, as well as extended investigations of discoveries by
other space telescopes."

SOFIA is fitted with a 100-inch diameter airborne infrared telescope.
It 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 and
led by principal investigator Terry Herter. 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. A gallery of those
images is available at:


Upcoming SOFIA images, including images from the Nov. 30 flight, will
be added to this gallery.

"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."

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 first science flight showed that the SOFIA observatory works very
well," said Alois Himmes, SOFIA project manager at DLR. "It also
demonstrated the excellent collaboration between the U.S. and German
partners and the intense work of the teams during the past weeks."
NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the
SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the
Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and the
Deutsches SOFIA Institut at the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

For more information about SOFIA, visit:


For recorded video interviews and B-roll footage, visit:


For information about SOFIA's science mission, visit:



Source: NASA

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