Flying Telescope Snaps First Science Photos
This infrared image of the heart of the Orion star-formation complex was taken from NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). This image, a two-filter false-color composite, reveals detailed structures in the clouds of star forming material, as well as heat radiating from a cluster of luminous newborn stars seen in the upper right.
Credit: NASA/SOFIA/USRA/FORCAST team

A jumbo jet outfitted with an infrared telescope completed its first science flight Dec. 1, making formal observations of the cosmos from high up in Earth's stratosphere.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, took off from an Air Force runway in Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 30. It flew for about 10 hours, capturing images while in flight, before landing Wednesday morning, NASA officials said.

SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at an altitude of 39,000 to 45,000 feet (11,887 to 13,716 meters). It gets above most of the infrared-light-absorbing water vapor in Earth's atmosphere, affording a clearer view than ground-based infrared instruments are able to achieve. [Gallery: The Universe in Infrared]

SOFIA should therefore allow scientists to better understand a wide range of astronomical phenomena, including how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space and how supermassive black holes evolve, researchers said.

"These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIA?s development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science observations," Jon Morse, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division, said in a statement. "We anticipate a number of important discoveries from this unique observatory, as well as extended investigations of discoveries by other space telescopes."

SOFIA is fitted with an airborne infrared telescope 8.3 feet (2.5 meters) wide. The aircraft's instruments can analyze light from a wide range of celestial objects, including the warm interstellar gas and dust of star-forming regions, by observing wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 microns, researchers said.

A micron is one millionth of a meter. For comparison, the human eye can see electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.

The Nov. 30 flight marked the first leg of SOFIA's early science program. SOFIA used the Faint Object InfraRed Camera instrument on this flight, and will employ it on two upcoming jaunts as well, officials said.

In February 2011, engineers will install another instrument, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), on the plane. SOFIA will then make three flights with the GREAT instrument during the second phase of its science program, according to officials.

The Nov. 30 flight was not the first time SOFIA got off the ground. The airliner snapped its first stratospheric photo during a test flight in May. And two weeks ago, on another test flight, it imaged areas within the Orion star-formation complex ? a region SOFIA investigated in more detail on the Nov. 30 flight, researchers said. [SOFIA image of Orion complex]

"The early science flight program serves to validate SOFIA's capabilities and demonstrate the observatory's ability to make observations not possible from Earth-based telescopes," said Bob Meyer, NASA's SOFIA program manager. "It also marks SOFIA's transition from flying testbed to flying observatory, and it gives the international astronomical research community a new, highly versatile platform for studying the universe."

SOFIA is an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt.