Giant airplane-mounted telescope sees first light!

The entire universe in blog form
May 28 2010 3:09 PM

Giant airplane-mounted telescope sees first light!

Very cool news: the flying infrared observatory, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) -- which has been in the works for many years -- has seen first light. What's remarkable about this observatory is that it's mounted in a hole in the side of a 747!

Don't believe me? Check. This. Out:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  



[Click any of the images here to embiggen.]

See that ginormous square hole in the back of the plane? That's where the telescope sits, looking out at the sky. Why put it in a plane? Because SOFIA looks in the mid to far infrared, and observations like that are impossible from the ground. Water vapor in the air absorbs the kind of infrared light seen by SOFIA, but by the time you go up to about 10 km (35,000 feet) you're above 99% of the Earth's water vapor. That little bit left does still absorb the light, but a telescope at that altitude receives about 80% of the IR an orbiting observatory would.

So, amazingly, they cut a big hole in the side of a modified 747 and stuck a telescope in it. A big one: SOFIA sports a 2.5 meter (8 foot) mirror, which is bigger than Hubble's!

Here's a sample of what it saw: sofia_firstlight_jupiter

That is, of course, Jupiter. On the left is an image in visible light, and on the right the SOFIA image. It's a composite of three infrared colors: 5.4 (colored blue in the image), 24 (green), and 37 microns (red). Your eye can see wavelengths only as long as about 0.7 microns, so these represent wavelengths well outside what we can see. See the stripe on the left that's reddish? In the infrared it's brighter, because the gas in that belt is transparent to infrared light and we can see deeper into Jupiter's atmosphere where it's warmer. Note that the other belt is still missing, in the visible and infrared. Whatever is blocking the light from that belt is opaque to both our eyes and SOFIA's.

sofia_m82SOFIA also took a look at the nucleus of the nearby weird galaxy M82, which is undergoing a burst of star formation, and is lousy with thick dust that blocks visible light. SOFIA peers through that dust, revealing the star factories hard at work in the center of that galaxy.

According to preliminary reports, SOFIA is performing perfectly, and getting great observations at a far, far cheaper price tag than putting something in orbit. We still need telescopes in orbit to do other work -- some IR is still absorbed even at that height -- but SOFIA will make terrific achievements. It also has a robust educational arm, which includes taking as many as 200 teachers per year up on observation flights! If you're an educator and interested in this, contact the team at SOFIA. You may just qualify to get the airplane ride of a lifetime.

Image credits: Anthony Wesley, N. A. Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF, NASA/Jim Ross



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
The Vault
Sept. 16 2014 12:15 PM “Human Life Is Frightfully Cheap”: A 1900 Petition to Make Lynching a Federal Offense
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 8:41 PM You’re Cut, Adrian Peterson Why fantasy football owners should release the Minnesota Vikings star.