NASA's giant flying telescope gets real wind-blown

NASA’s SOFIA features modified 747 carrying a 98-inch infrared telescope

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SOFIA with doors open
NASA said today it opened the aircraft doors on its giant flying space observatory for the first time in flight, with the idea of letting engineers to understand how air flows in and around its 98-inch infrared telescope.

 The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy or SOFIA is a modified 747 jet that flew for one hour and 19 minutes which included two minutes with the telescope's doors opened 10% of the way. The next test, slated for later in December, will see the door fully opened. 

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The test flights, which are designed to verify the scientific capabilities of the telescope systems such as the vibration isolation, the inertial stabilization and the pointing control -- will culminate with the flying observatory's first official flight in the summer of 2010, NASA said.

NASA says SOFIA will ultimately be the world's largest airborne astronomical observatory, offering three times better image quality and vastly increased observational sensitivity than the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a NASA's C-141 with a telescope that flew between 1975 and 1995. 

According to NASA SOFIA will be a world-class airborne space observatory that will complement the Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel and James Webb space telescopes in particular as well as other observatories across the globe.

 SOFIA features a German-built 100-inch (2.5 meter) diameter far-infrared telescope weighing 20 tons mounted in the rear fuselage of a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft.  SOFIA is a joint program by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt).

From NASA's Dryden base, SOFIA missions will be conducted over virtually the entire globe, NASA stated.  Missions will be flown at altitudes of 39,000 to 45,000 feet, above 99% of the water vapor in the lower atmosphere that restrict the capabilities of ground-based observatories over most of the infrared and sub-millimeter spectral range, NASA stated. 

SOFIA is designed to help answer questions about the creation and evolution of the universe, including how stars and planets are formed, how organic materials necessary for life form and evolve, and the nature of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, NASA stated.

The SOFIA program isn't the only telescope system that got a boost this week. NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer this week blasted into space with its own infrared-based system looking for the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images. 

The space agency says the WISE spacecraft will circle Earth over the poles, scanning the entire sky one-and-a-half times in nine months. The idea behind the spacecraft is to uncover objects never seen before, including the coolest stars, the universe's most luminous galaxies and some of the darkest near-Earth asteroids and comets. 

WISE will also scan for near-Earth objects, such as asteroids and comets, with orbits that come close to crossing Earth's path. The mission is expected to find hundreds of these bodies, and hundreds of thousands of additional asteroids in our solar system's main asteroid belt, NASA stated. By measuring the objects' infrared light, astronomers will get the first good estimate of the size distribution of the asteroid population. This information will tell us approximately how often Earth can expect an encounter with a potentially hazardous asteroid, NASA said. 

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