Long time readers will remember the excitement about NASA’s flying observatory SOFIA, which was preparing for it’s first flight back in May. On November 30, SOFIA made it’s first science flight, which lasted ten hours and collected data on star forming regions in Orion. SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is a pretty ambitious project to hoist a complete observatory up above most of the Earth’s atmospheric water vapour to peer at the cosmos in the infrared. Water vapour does a good job of absorbing infrared light (part of what makes it such a potent greenhouse gas), so infrared telescopes cannot see through it. This is why most infrared astronomy is done with space telescopes. Unfortunately it is extremely expensive and difficult to operate a telescope in space, and any repairs or maintenance have to wait till astronauts are scheduled for a visit.
SOFIA is intended to change all that, though. The telescope is a little larger than the hubble with it’s 2.5 meter mirror, and is housed on a sophisticated gyro-stabilised mount. The observatory itself is a specially modified Boeing 747: Most of the passenger area was ripped out to make space for the telescope and a huge hole was ripped into the side to allow the telescope to look out. The remaining passenger area is equipped with computer workstations for observatory staff to monitor and control the telescope. The result is that astronomers can now perform valuable work in the infrared spectrum without the cost or delays of operating a space telescope.