SOFIA Update: Airborne Telescope Tests Continue

NASA and the DLR (German AerospaceCenter) are collaborating to create SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory forInfrared Astronomy--a Boeing 747-SP aircraft modified by L-3 Communications IntegratedSystems in Waco, Texas to accommodate a 2.5-meter reflecting telescope,approximately the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope. SOFIA will be thelargest airborne observatory in history, and will make observations that areimpossible for even the largest and highest ground-based telescopes.

Astronomical objects emit many formsof energy, which neither the human eye nor ordinary telescopes can detect.SOFIA will be the world's primary observatory at far-infrared andsub-millimeter wavelengths for much of the next two decades, capable of"Great Observatory"-class science. SOFIA will also be an outstandinglaboratory for developing and testing astronomical instrumentation and detectortechnology, as well as an education and public outreach facility "parexcellence", putting educators from across the U.S. in contact withfrontier scientific research.

NASA AdministratorMichael Griffin announced on July 6, 2006 that NASA planned to goforward with completing and operating SOFIA. NASA's Dryden Flight ResearchCenter (DFRC) has over-all responsibility for the remainder of SOFIA'sdevelopment. A SOFIA "Science Project" at NASA's Ames Research Centerincluding Universities Space Research Association (USRA) will continue planningfor scientific operations and management of SOFIA's nine science instruments.DLR and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart willcontinue support for telescope maintenance and science operations.

The SOFIAtelescope is already functioning and has been used for optical testobservations of Polaris from the L-3 runway apron. In September 2006 SOFIAtaxied under its own power for the first time since arriving in Waco in 1997. Both low- and high-speed taxi tests have been done, as well as full power enginerun-ups. Later that month, upgrades were completed to a critical bulkhead in the tail. The plane has now received its flight-worthy paint job,with registered "tail number" N747NA.

Principalefforts remaining before first test flight include: completion of about 400"routine" aircraft maintenance items, installation of the telescopecavity insulation, modification and verification of the cavity environmentalcontrol system, avionics verification, installation of some safety monitoringand flight-test systems, and safety and flight readiness reviews. The plane isexpected to fly from Waco to DFRC after a few airworthiness test flights,sometime in spring 2007. Several years of test flights are planned at DFRC,first a series of flights with the telescope door closed, followed by a serieswith the door open. After that will come scientific commissioning of theobservatory and the first astronomical research observations, which the currentschedule indicates will occur in late 2009.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.