NASA's Ames Research Center let folks tour the SOFIA airborne observatory while the modified 747SP jet was in Silicon Valley in October 2011. SOFIA, a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, normally resides considerably farther south, at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.
SOFIA as seen from a hangar at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy. Researchers plan to use the observatory to investigate star formation, the early universe, black holes and the composition of comets and planetary atmospheres, among other things.
SOFIA rested just outside a hangar at Ames, ready to welcome the public aboard.
A view up the steps of NASA's SOFIA flying observatory. The modified 747SP jet bears the name "Clipper Lindbergh." SOFIA just started flying science missions last year, and astronomers hope to operate it for at least two decades.
A view out one of SOFIA's windows, along the port (left) side of the aircraft near the wing.
Seats near the front of SOFIA's cabin accommodate educators, who take their experiences back to the classroom to teach and inspire students.
These seats, near SOFIA's "mission control," are occupied by technical personnel when the observatory is flying a mission.
A view looking tailward through the cabin of NASA's SOFIA flying observatory. At the back, two science instruments jut from a bulkhead. The instruments are attached to SOFIA's 17-ton telescope, which sits on the other side of the bulkhead.
A close-up of two SOFIA science instruments, FLITECAM and HIPO, which are connected to the telescope on the other side of the bulkhead. Science instruments can be removed and swapped out between flights; the plane usually flies with just one instrument aboard.
A view down the length of SOFIA. The bulge near the tail marks the area where the 17-ton infrared telescope is housed.
When SOFIA is aloft, the large door on its left side opens, exposing its 17-ton telescope to the elements and the heavens.
This NASA image shows the SOFIA telescope during testing procedures in May 2010, before the instrument's first science flight.