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Onboard NASA’s Flying Observatory – Part One

By: Rich DeMuro
Feb. 20, 2013

When you’re staring up at the stars, you’re only seeing a glimpse of the picture. That’s because a layer of water vapor lies between earth’s surface and outer space. NASA has a solution a decade in the making–Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

The Tech Report recently joined a handful of teachers and NASA scientists for a ride aboard SOFIA. The mission was two folds: test the new equipment onboard, and allow for select teachers to observe and study the information gathered to share with their students.

“[SOFIA] is the best of both worlds,” said Dana Backman, manager of SOFIA’s education and public outreach program.  “It has a better view of the universe than a mountain-top observatory, and it’s much less expensive than a space telescope.”

Formerly a Pan Am, Boeing 747 airplane, SOFIA was gutted and to a system of star gazing equipment, including 100-inch telescope that collects infrared light to collect data from stars.

While SOFIA doesn’t go into space, everyone on board is required to carry a portable oxygen masks when walking around the cabin as a safety precaution. To put it into perspective, SOFIA flies a little higher than your typical commercial jet, but still inside the atmosphere.

“At the altitude we fly, we’ve got 80 percent of the light of the infrared light that a space telescope could receive,” said Backman. “We come home every morning. So that’s more convenient.”

Once airborne, a back door opens to expose SOFIA’s telescope lens to space. The 44,000 pound telescope equipment is housed within a wall inside the plane to hold back nearly 1 million pounds of pressure during flight.

The trick is to keep the telescope at a very cold temperature so that ambient temperatures don’t interfere with the telescope itself, which is kept at a chilly -27.67 degrees Fahrenheit–well below the freezing temperature of water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the course of the nine hour flight, scientists and teachers have the opportunity to gather data and make observations of specific clusters of stars.

Through the experience on the SOFIA project NASA hopes to inspire teachers to bring back to their classrooms a new way to integrate astronomy into children’s studies.

More on the teachers’ experience on our next story.

For more behind the scenes pictures and information, go to Richontech.tumblr.com

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