NASA's new jumbo-jet-mounted telescope takes its first snapshots

Peering out of a hole in the side of a jumbo jet, NASA's new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) captured its first images of Jupiter and of the galaxy M82.

NASA's newest infrared telescope has taken to the skies to capture its first views of the cosmos from a stratospheric perch – one that allows it gaze out a huge hole in the side of high-flying jumbo jet.

The telescope, called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), took its first photos on May 26 to reveal multicolored infrared views of Jupiter and the galaxy M82.

"With this flight, SOFIA begins a 20-year journey that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth and space-borne observatories," said NASA's astrophysics division director Jon Morse in a statement. "It clearly sets expectations that SOFIA will provide us with Great Observatory-class astronomical science."

The SOFIA telescope is an infrared 100-inch (2.5 meter) reflecting telescope packed into the rear of an extensively modified Boeing 747SP jumbo jet. A door is opened during flight to allow the 17-ton telescope to observe the night sky from above much of the atmosphere that can interfere with observations by ground-based telescopes.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California is overseeing the telescope's operations. The observatory is actually a joint effort of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. Its research team controls the telescope from a separate cabin inside the SOFIA aircraft, which is expected to be in service for at least 20 years.

"At its maximum observation ceiling, SOFIA is above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere, and so can receive a large part of cosmic infrared radiation which is otherwise absorbed by Earth's atmosphere," said Paul Hertz, SOFIA's chief scientist for NASA's science mission directorate.

For the maiden science flight, the aircraft observatory took off from its home port at Dryden's Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.

A crew of 10 scientists accompanied the SOFIA telescope on the nearly eight-hour flight. SOFIA was flying at about 497 mph (800 kph) and at altitudes of up to 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) when they observed the galaxy M82 and Jupiter. [More Jupiter photos.]

"Wind tunnel tests and supercomputer calculations made at the start of the SOFIA program predicted we would have sharp enough images for front-line astronomical research," said SOFIA project scientist Pam Marcum of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "A preliminary look at the first light data indicates we indeed accomplished that."

SOFIA's first infrared images of Jupiter and M82 revealed both objects at wavelengths unobservable by ground and space-based telescopes, SOFIA scientists said.

In the Jupiter snapshot, the gas giant planet internal heat can be seen bleeding through holes in its thick bands of clouds. The infrared look at the M82 galaxy, meanwhile, allowed astronomers to peer through the galaxy's interstellar dust clouds and spot several so-called "starburst" knots, where infant stars are forming by the tens of thousands.

"SOFIA combines the effectiveness of satellite-based telescopes with the relatively easy maintenance of ground-based observatories," said Alois Himmes, SOFIA project manager for the German Aerospace Center. "SOFIA is comparable to a space observatory that comes home every morning."

The 10-scientist team aboard SOFIA's inaugural science flight included researchers from NASA, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), the German SOFIA Institute (DSI), and Cornell University. The USRA and DSI oversee SOFIA's science operations for NASA and the German Aerospace Center

"A preliminary examination of the first light data shows that the images are in fact sharp enough to enable cutting-edge astronomy," said Alfred Krabbe, director and scientific head of DSI. "Now at last, the fun begins."

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