NASA unveils airborne space observatory

January 14, 2008 7:54:53 PM PST
NASA astronomers have a new way to gaze at the universe an airborne observatory with an infrared telescope that promises a much better glimpse into our galaxy and universe.

Dr. Eric Becklin is among more than 100 engineers and scientists who have waited more than a decade for a close-up at at a Boeing 747 that first flew for Pan American as the Clipper Lindbergh. Now, it has a new name: Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- or SOFIA.

"The infrared gives you clues to what's out there. You can see through dust, molecules forming, objects you can't see any other way. Infrared is the key," says Eric Becklin, P.hD./NASA Astronomer.

Altitude is the key to seeing it, because water vapor absorbs infrared light, but not at 40,000 feet. The plane has a telescope that shoots a door open to the sky. Gyroscopes hold it in position.

"The advantage to this version of the 747 is that it's shorter, gets to altitude faster, and remains there longer," says Tom Speer, flight engineer.

It's a giant leap compared with it's famous predecessor, the Kuiper Observatory, which sat off to the side today. SOPHIA's telescope is 100 times more effective. It's bigger and it means that they will see fainter objects in space. At half a billion dollars, one would hope so.

NASA plans to use the plane four or five days a week, for two decades. Thousands of hours in the air to see millions of light years back in time.