SOFIA is the Latest
Creation from NASA
The Honeymoon might be over for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope Project, launched in 1990 and now in its 18th year of operation. And while Hubble has allowed the engineers at NASA to peer into galaxies over 12 billion light years away, this being NASA, I guess good is never really good enough.
So what do you do when you need to raise the bar on something as profound and ingenious as Hubble? Well if you're NASA, you let the crew at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base start throwing ideas around and see what develops. Some engineers suggest cramming a really expensive and extremely heavy telescope into the guts of a 747SP so NASA can fly around up really high while pointing the sucker out into deep space.
The other engineers at first snort and chuckle, until they think about it for a minute and decide that the idea might not be all that far fetched. One thing leads to another, someone "raises it up the flagpole" at a Board meeting, and the top brass salutes it. Next thing you know, you have this, from NASA's SOFIA site:
NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, lifted off from Edwards Air Force Base at mid-day Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 on the first in a series of flight tests intended to verify the flight performance of the highly modified Boeing 747SP to its design capability. NASA is developing SOFIA as a world-class airborne observatory that will complement the Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel and James Webb space telescopes and major Earth-based telescopes. SOFIA features a German-built 100-inch (2.5 meter) diameter far-infrared telescope weighing 20 tons mounted in the rear fuselage of a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft.Why, you might ask, would it be better to look into deep space from way WAY up in the flight levels? Good question, and here is the answer:
As the world's largest airborne astronomical observatory, SOFIA will provide three times better image quality and vastly increased observational sensitivity than the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. From a base at NASA Dryden, SOFIA mission operations will be conducted over virtually the entire globe. Missions will be flown at altitudes of 39,000 to 45,000 feet, above 99 percent of the water vapor in the lower atmosphere that restrict the capabilities of ground-based observatories over most of the infrared and sub-millimeter spectral range.But wait...you might think that engineers with the crazy telescope-in-an-airplane idea were geniuses. But in fact, they was only channeling those who came before them:
SOFIA will continue the legacy of prominent planetary scientist Dr. Gerard Kuiper, who began airborne astronomy in 1966 with a 12-inch telescope aimed out a window of a converted Convair 990 jetliner. His work led to the development of NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a modified C-141 aircraft incorporating a 36-inch reflecting telescope that flew from 1974 to 1995. During its 21-year lifetime, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory focused on solar system, galactic and extra-galactic astronomy, and discovered the rings of Uranus, a ring of dust around the center of the Milky Way, luminous infrared galaxies, complex organic molecules in space and water in comets.Really cool stuff, this is. What can't a 747 do? They fight fires, right, so why not become a deep space telescope platform. And while I sometimes struggle to keep my telephoto lens pointed at a moving subject, I expect the engineers on this project have really been up late at night figuring out how to make such a sensitive instrument perform flawlessly...from inside the belly of a fast-moving airliner.
Neat trick if then can make it all work...and I have ever reason to believe they can, because, well, they're NASA. They just don't make many mistakes.