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NASA's New Airborne Observatory Sees "First Light"

Mercury Summer 2010 Table of Contents

artist's impression of SOFIA

Credit: Lynette Cook.

by Nicholas A. Veronico

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, reached its "First Light" flight milestone during the early morning hours of May 26, when the aircraft's telescope and attached infrared camera collected light from celestial
targets for the first time at altitude.

The flight was conducted from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility at the Palmdale Airport in Southern California. SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP fitted with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter infrared telescope in the aft section of the plane, and is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Bonn, Germany.

Energy collected by SOFIA's telescope was channeled into
the Faint Object infraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). FORCAST, built by a team from Cornell University, headed by Principal Investigator Dr. Terry Herter, is a mid-infrared camera that records images through filters in the wavelength range of 5 to 40 microns. (For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.) Using FORCAST, scientists recorded images of Jupiter and the galaxy M82 (located approximately 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major) at wavelengths unobservable by either ground-based observatories or current space-based telescopes.

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